Enough mothers behave like Debra Winger in Rachel Getting Married to remind me of how Virginia Woolf might have rewritten the Shakespeare's-sister bit in A Room of One's Own: since mothers have to perform constantly, it's really no stretch for a fiftysomething actress to accrue Oscar buzz for the effort. But Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Jenny Lumet show no interest in turning Winger's Abby into a plasticine doll like Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People. Although we're never told why she and Bill Irwin divorced, Demme and Lumet are subtle enough to hint at a basic incompatibility, hardened by the consequences of the unexpected horror for which daughter Anne Hathaway is responsible (no spoiler here). But they have enough in common: Irwin's Paul is one of those bumblers with a pathological interest in smoothing over conflict; Abby has remarried a smiling, rather dim George Hamilton type who "goes down to Washington" weekly -- a diplomat or civil servant? Cathy, a Washington hostess? As played by Winger, she's a reformed hippie type who keeps her hair frowzy, drinks tea by the gallons, and might read a Eckhart Tolle tome at the recommendation of a friend. Her smile dazzles; she's still unassumingly, powerfully sexual. A Washington hostess. Cross her, though, and she'll explode...and you'll receive a genuinely apologetic note in the morning.
There's a lot to recommend in Rachel Getting Married: the return of Jonathan Demme from necrophiliac remakes of genre pictures for which he has no affinity; the return too of Winger, who briefly in the early eighties had it in her to be a star and talent to which screenwriters could dedicate careers; the ease with which different races and characters of indeterminate sexuality mingle on screen, sharing wine and jokes; Demme's use of music, which, he seems to say, is the force that binds us even when it's background noise (an appearance by a healthy, warm Robyn Hitchcock strikes one of the movie's few gimmicky notes, though); Tunde Adebimpe serenading bride Rosemarie DeWitt with a non-embarrassing a cappella version of Neil Young's "Unknown Legend" at the altar. But I want to praise Demme for capturing the simmer of blood relations. The sense in which, for example, we rarely know whether our parents' kindness conceals hurts and unspoken compromises between how we are and what they expected us to be, unfolds in the way Hathaway, Irwin, Winger, and Dewitt look and talk to each other. Dishwashing contests and nervous toasts to sons-in-law serve as palliatives -- and they're also fun in themselves. The worst part about being thirty-three is forgetting that I can't talk to my parents as adults: they simply don't want to know about certain parts of our lives. Hence the recourse to office gossip, football games, and Christmas presents. Watching Rachel Getting Married, I made fists during a couple of the more episodic sequences; there always lingered the suspicion that anything can happen.
I almost congratulate Demme's daring: the movie should be this self-congratulatory ode to liberal Connecticut inclusiveness, and it is, in places, and more. To say it's better than last year's Margot at the Wedding is like arguing that Charade is superior to The Truth About Charlie.