Shot in a nervous intrusive style Rachel Getting Married is a blistering portrait of a family during a tension-filled wedding weekend. The long-simmering conflicts come to the surface at an event that’s supposed to be about good times. Actually the title is a bit of a misnomer since although it is indeed Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) getting hitched the plot really revolves around her troubled sister Kym (Hathaway) who comes straight from a stint in rehab to the family gathering. In attending the wedding she brings a boatload of personal issues--sibling and parental resentments and a whole host of other problems guaranteed to make everyone in the room uncomfortable. This all comes to a head early on at the pre-wedding dinner at which she makes an awkward piercing toast that puts the entire place on edge. It doesn’t help that her father (Bill Irwin) is rather weak and overprotective and her mother (Debra Winger) is now remarried and has moved on to a different kind of life--disconnected from her daughters emotionally. The wedding a Hindu ceremony becomes a catalyst for personal confrontations that finally break out into the open. The ensemble cast assembled by director Jonathan Demme is simply unbeatable--led by a breakthrough performance from Hathaway. Her wry ironic humor internal self-loathing seething conflicts and heartbreaking emotional vulnerability are all the by-products of a young woman who desperately needs to be embraced. This is a major acting turn and those who only think of Hathaway from Ella Enchanted and The Princess Diaries are going to be surprised to see the emergence of an actress who is the real thing. As her sister Rachel DeWitt who also was impressive as the mistress in season one of Mad Men doesn’t get to take center stage but has several strong moments. Watch out for this one. Irwin and Winger prove the meaning of the word “pro” in their limited screen time. In just a couple of big scenes Winger totally nails the mother and her need to distance her relationship with her own family. You only wish the part was fleshed out a little more especially since great roles for Winger seem to be few and far between these days. Irwin is equally impressive likeable but clueless as far as the real drama playing out between his daughters. This Tony-winning Broadway veteran gives us a lifetime of information about his character in just a few scattered moments. The Oscar-winning Demme (Silence of the Lambs Philadelphia) has spent the last few years doing documentaries and concert films so it’s nice to report he’s got his mojo back with his first narrative film since 2004’s The Manchurian Candidate remake. Actually Rachel seems influenced by some of his recent non-fictional work with a documentary style approach to screenwriter Jenny Lumet’s somewhat conventional scripting. The use of hand-held cameras is pervasive and has the intended effect of bringing out raw emotions in the kind of cinema verite Robert Altman often employed. In a nod to the obvious inspiration the late Altman is thanked in the end credits. Demme’s in-your-face filmmaking might be oft-putting to some members of the audience but it effectively heightens the reality of the piece separating Rachel from the pack. Ultimately this is a performance piece and Demme has brought out the best of his cast of fine actors gaining award-worthy turns.
Sometimes the simplest of crimes are the ones that go the most awry—a fact Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) find out the hard way. You see they both have money problems: Andy is an overextended payroll exec who has been embezzling from his company while Hank is a flighty ne’er-do-well who can’t pay child support. When Andy hatches a larcenous scheme to rob a suburban mom-and-pop jewelry store that appears to be the quintessential easy target Hank is in—until he finds out the store owners are Andy and Hank’s actual mom (Rosemary Harris) and pop (Albert Finney). “How can we do that?” Hank asks his cold-hearted brother but Andy assures Hank it’s a piece of cake and that no one will get hurt. Famous last words. Hank’s fears are realized when the job goes horribly wrong and tragedy reaches unprecedented heights. A top-notch cast like this only makes things better. Hoffman in particular gives yet another tour-de-force performance as the troubled Andy a man wounded by his father’s hard-headedness and lack of affection throughout the years. Hoffman alternates between calculating coldness and heart-wrenching desperation—all while keeping his outwardly appearance impeccable. Hawke’s Hank on the other hand is just a mess through and through a “puppy dog ” as so described by Andy who wears his heart on his sleeve and is his father’s favorite. Although Hawke whines and grates his way through the performance that is what the part requires and he is quite effective at it. Finney as the brothers’ old man is also conflicted devastated by the tragedy yet determined to get to the bottom of it--and when he realizes it’s his sons Finney plays the moment perfectly. Also good is Marisa Tomei as Andy’s stressed wife; she plays her like a caged bird looking for a way out. When things keep getting worse you cringe in anticipation of each character’s next move. Sidney Lumet is certainly an expert in train-wreck crime dramas having served up such classics as Dog Day Afternoon Serpico and Prince of the City as well as other stellar efforts such as 12 Angry Men Network and The Verdict. He’s also directed 17 different actors in their Oscar-winning performances--and still the man himself has yet to win the Academy Award for Best Director. Funny how it always works out that way. Over the last few years Lumet has stumbled a bit (2006’s Find Me Guilty didn’t help matters) but you shouldn’t underestimate his talent when he can really sink his teeth into something. Before the Devil is right up his alley and he spins it with all the experience and professionalism he has at his fingertips. Its nonstop pace is enhanced by some clever editing in which time jumps back and forth over the span of a week. And of course Lumet once again guides his actors into stellar performances. You get this dysfunctional family immediately without a word spoken. The director is surely looking at his sixth Oscar nomination and if he wins the Big One for what in essence is his body of work at least we can say he won for something truly worthy.
It isn’t until later on in The Departed that you realize how important and well-crafted its beginning is: Two Bostonians Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) nearly cross paths when they’re interviewed in succession by Sgt. Dignam (Mark Wahlberg) and Capt. Queenan (Martin Sheen). Costigan is chosen to infiltrate the mob in order to get to Boston’s most feared boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) and he’ll have to put in some time in the slammer and on the streets before gaining a shred of cred; meanwhile Sullivan clean-cut and articulate is pulling the ultimate job for Costello by infiltrating the state police department and alerting the mob boss of their every move. As the two moles become more involved in their undercover operations the groups they’re infiltrating begin to smell something fishy. And so commences the chess match between Costigan and Sullivan to reveal each other before their respective pseudo-colleagues do. For any actor who truly enjoys the art of his job more so than the sexy periphery of it all something as collaborative as The Departed must seem like the proverbial “candy store.” Maybe that explains why DiCaprio Damon Nicholson and Wahlberg all signed up instead of carrying their own separate blockbusters for likely a much bigger payday. DiCaprio and Damon do what they do in every movie: give their best performances to date. Each plays completely against type flaunting the fact that genuine movie superstardom isn’t born out of good looks alone. For Nicholson his career nearing the half-century mark it’s no longer easy to qualify and rank his performances but Costello is one of his high points in a career pretty much devoid of anything but. As likely the lone Oscar contender (amongst the cast) Nicholson is equal parts monstrous and wry--or better yet equal parts Jack Torrance and The Joker. Wahlberg steals the funniest lines especially with his inborn Boston accent but Sheen often catches them before they’re allowed too much laughter. It doesn’t end there though: Alec Baldwin (as a fellow officer) soon-to-be breakout star Vera Farmiga (as a police shrink who ends up playing a central role) Ray Winstone (as Costello’s right-hand man) and Anthony Anderson (as a young cop familiar with both Costigan and Sullivan) all shine. Unprecedented chemistry amongst an unprecedented cast is as much a theme here as revenge! It is a privilege to watch a legend who is still so relevant: Martin Scorsese. The iconic director is responsible for some of film’s all-time masterpieces (Taxi Driver Raging Bull Goodfellas) but perhaps never has he seemed so vigorous. The Departed is a return to form for him in its vulgarity and casual-as-waking-up violence--the man makes exploding brain bits look like masterful spin art but somehow never gratuitous; however the film is not a return to straight-ahead mob flicks which would be a copout. His mere aura commands actors’ best-ever performances and does he ever get them here. But it’s Scorsese’s party thanks to his trademark grit and urban storytelling for no one makes the bad look so damn good! His prowess is indubitable but it’s hard to imagine him doing it without a superb script rewrite of Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs from Boston’s own William Monahan (Kingdom of Heaven). His story is not flawless all the time--for one thing Farmiga’s character is the story’s thinly veiled crutch--and it could be argued that the gunshots are exploitatively deafening but this is no time to nitpick. It’s time to sit back feel tense and enjoy the show!