DAN IN REAL LIFE
*/**** Image A Sound B Extras D
starring Steve Carell, Juliette Binoche, Dane Cook, Dianne Wiest
screenplay by Pierce Gardner and Peter Hedges
directed by Peter Hedges
RACHEL GETTING MARRIED
**/**** Image A Sound A Extras C
starring Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Debra Winger
screenplay by Jenny Lumet
directed by Jonathan Demme
by Walter Chaw The Darwin chart of this breed of American indie, otherwise known as unlikely shrines to The Celebration (or Festen, if you prefer), follows in the United States with something like Margot at the Wedding near the top as most-evolved down mid-way to Rachel Getting Married and its histrionic Demme-tasse reduction, down to ankle-deep--we're talking primordial muck--with Dan in Real Life. That last one, from Pieces of April perpetrator Peter Hedges, squanders an unusual amount of currency in Steve Carell (at his melancholic zenith), pairing him with Juliette Binoche in a bittersweet romantic imbroglio that absolutely does not deserve the happy horseshit ending slathered on it to apologize for its occasional poignancy. It's not that I enjoy being sad, it's that I enjoy getting a condescending handjob even less. I'm willing to forgive the bad slapstick of a group-aerobics session, the casting of Dane Cook, and the set-up/knock-down mentality of it that in fairness mars more honest films like Rachel Getting Married, too. The picture begins in the title's "real life," only to sail away to a privileged, impossible Rhode Island wonderland that may as well be the setting of every Nicholas Sparks book ever written and to-be-written. It's a movie that makes you feel good, like a barium enema, or Rolfing. What I'm saying is that a lot of things make you feel good in a dumb, animal way--not a lot of them are also art.
No contrivance goes untried. There's the trio of precocious daughters (Alison Pill, Brittany Robertson, Marlene Lawston), the folksy parents, the house on a bay, the acoustic guitar play, the dead wife, and, of course, assorted middlebrow strife, all packed into one room. It's such a shameless play for your warm-fuzzy organ that it's nigh indistinguishable from an entire legacy of Julia Roberts romantic comedies wherein bad, appalling, despicable behaviour is excused by various threadbare machinations. Sure, you just stole your brother's girlfriend, but hey, he's an idiot better suited to some sex-bimbo, right? That rationale, let's face it, is the same one applied by filmmakers who know better than you do what's best and are so eager to please that they're entirely heedless of what they might trample en route to achieving that aim. Would worldly, exotic Julie (Binoche), for example, be a good match for cerebral, depressive advice columnist Dan (Carell) after agreeing to a weekend getaway to meet the family of lunkhead Mitch (Cook)?
Dan meets-cute Julie at a bookstore, where he does shtick, takes her to a sad, windblown, photogenic locale to ply her with his charm, and returns to the family reserve, whereupon it's revealed that Julie's the girl on bro Mitch's arm. But Julie is exactly what widower Dan needs; oh God, why art thou such a whimsical asshole? An uncomfortable dinner scene shows that Dan's human, while the perfunctory revelations and reconciliations indicate that Hedges is more than likely a creature made of gingerbread and hugs. Dan in Real Life is completely shameless in its calculated sentiment, all this false indie-dysfunction modesty a smokescreen for a particular strain of arrogance. It's the antidote to thoughtful, breathlessly romantic, clear-eyed, innovative, brilliant, genuinely courageous love stories like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If you're surprised that it closes with a wedding shot at magic-hour over water, you deserve every single one of these pieces of shit Hollywood squeezes out with well-lubricated regularity.
It hurts that the cast gathered this time around is up to the task of doing an intelligent, respectful piece about how you can't help who you love and, more, how you can't help hurting your loved ones. Carell has at least three grace notes in the picture, real hints that he's got a serious movie in him. And then he's forced to do the ol' turn-on-the-shower-while-someone's-hiding-in-it gag with Binoche, escalated to a pre-pubescent male fantasy of remaining clothed, the better to gain some odd advantage in the voyeur discussion over said object choice. He'll betray in lovely shades the depths of his pain and then be forced to watch Binoche dry hump Cook on a picturesque autumn morning--to hint at his loss with shades of careful grey and then out with it in a shower of cheese as he performs a refrain from Pete Townsend during that unforgivable convention: the family talent show.
Too much of Dan in Real Life is a sop to authentic feeling. Too much is a desperate warm-blanket panacea of old New England wealth and the brand of familial kindliness that only parents played by John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest could manufacture. (There's more crinkle between the two of them than a tinsel factory.) It's a film that's embarrassed with everything about it that works--ashamed maybe, but definitely afraid that it might somehow offend its target middlebrow audience with a glimmer of the humanity it so desperately wants to use as its excuse for existing. Far from suggesting that it's an easy thing to tell a story with substance, Dan in Real Life has been wilfully shoved into the middle slot: the square peg in the square hole. It's so devoted to its inoffensiveness that the only thing it is by its end is this great, offensive waste.
More south of true but ultimately only just a slightly more grown-up version of Hedges's picture, Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married finds wealth in similar (this time Connecticut) trappings. Yet where Hedges's flick depicts warmth, Demme's gift is his ability to actually evoke it. Imagine the scene where dad (Bill Irwin, as the paterfamilias, is a particular standout) stumbles on a dish left behind by a dead son--with the most remote character left to comfort the aggrieved--in the hands of a Hedges: what's devastating in its way in the Demme would be Nicholas Sparks otherwise. Or consider another moment when Irwin's Paul talks his fresh-outta-rehab daughter Kym (Anne Hathaway) out of driving herself to her drug test and AA meeting as a prime example of how to dance around melodramatic landmines.
It's a shame, then, that Demme doesn't trust his deftness, saddling this intriguing chimera of Something Wild and Married to the Mob with well-trammelled Demme-as-auteur interludes that drag out, nonsensically, the corpses of Robyn Hitchcock and Sister Carol to cameo, grinding the whole shooting match to a halt at regular intervals. It's the sort of thing that either delights a festival audience that likely can't boast of seeing another Demme flick (except maybe The Silence of the Lambs) or causes the auteurist to squirm in the recognition of early-onset Stephen King Syndrome whereby volumes of past accomplishment are recycled as shorthand. When the priest, without prompting, identifies the song that groom Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe, a.k.a. TV on the Radio, a.k.a. that guy from Jump Tomorrow) has sung to his bride Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) as Neil Young, it can only be read as the worst kind of footnoting, i.e., the kind rendered extra-superfluous by the author's predilection for constantly quoting himself. The only real surprise is that someone doesn't break into "Burning Down the House" at the rehearsal dinner.
At least the film looks different from Demme's other fiction pieces, spending a long time in Lars Von Trier, handheld vérité territory as we essay the trials of solipsistic, broken Kym to the extent that Hathaway is capable of holding her Method together.1 Demme's films at their best boast of a certain surreality that has to do with ordinary figures passing through excessively bizarre, excessively ethnic scenarios--even The Silence of the Lambs has a quality of Alice through a looking-glass world alive with chronic masturbators, genius cannibals, and repressed memories. The aesthetic of Rachel Getting Married is jittery and invasive, which is not to say that it's good so much as to notify that there's an attempt by Demme to wear his documentarian hat onto this set, for whatever reason. It's a curious gesture, though, as the picture feels less like a glimpse into reality than like a cunning simulacrum of reality as cast and directed by Jonathan Demme. It's a reality that undermines its gravity with a tragically-deceased-kid backstory, and undercuts its momentum with quirky musical cues.2
All that said, Rachel Getting Married is not without its charms or surprises. In fact, it probably contains the same number of charms and surprises every Demme picture offers as tithe, meaning that it's a completely mediocre film: equal parts good and bad, mostly riding along the mid-line without much to say beyond its trailer's bullying tagline of "This is your family!" It's not. It's barely a human family; and with a couple of days' distance from its careful choreography, one is surprised to discover that what lingers, aside from a grudging respect for Debra Winger, who's pretty awesome in the film, is that the issue of miscegenation is, indeed, the key non-issue of 2008. Gloriously, of all the terrible things that befall this family, none of them has anything to do with Rachel being white and Sidney being black. For a movie that's essentially auteurist annotation, the great irony of Rachel Getting Married is that its best grab at eternity is as a footnote to a very precise, very specific cultural zeitgeist. Isn't it great that Obama's President?
THE BLU-RAY DISCS
Buena Vista brings Dan in Real Life to Blu-ray in a fine-grain 1.85:1, 1080p presentation. The film's fall palette is sharp and well-delineated (ditto black level) and there are no mastering issues to detract. Exteriors provide showcase material, with an early scene in a glass booth, rain trickling down the walls outside, boasting a startling, gratifying clarity. It's the sort of transfer that can ruin you for other formats, and this flick did nothing to earn it. Audio comes in uncompressed and compressed flavours, the former a PCM 5.1 track at 48khz that, while clear, is mixed with the same logic as the film is cut. It booms: birds chirp in the rear channels at surprising, unmotivated intervals, and a scene in a bowling alley sounds like the inside of an airplane hangar. None of it is without intention, I'm sure, but damned if I could figure out that intention. For what it's worth, the DD 5.1 alternative seems more front-heavy. Listening to Hedges's full-length yakker is meanwhile a difficult exercise that, not surprisingly, sees the director/co-writer waxing rhapsodic about every single member of the cast and, moreover, the way they pull off the authenticity of this pop-up family. A story--which will be recounted twice more on this disc--is told of how Carell, joining production once his co-stars had already bonded, was serenaded by his trio of movie-daughters with their rendition of "We Are Family." Exhibit A in the case of this whole exercise being that social enabler in every family that so abhors discomfort as to fustily make everyone uncomfortable.
"Just Like Family" (15 mins., 1080i) becomes an interesting, mute ombudsman in a sense as cast and crew tiptoe around the subject of their director, culminating in a moment where Hedges recounts an incident where he threw a tantrum and discovered that he needed to find a non-toddler way of expressing himself. It's the type of confession that invites a lot of reading between the lines. In "Handmade Music: Creating the Score" (10 mins., 1080i), Hedges gets all up in the grill of indie troubadour Sondre Lerche and winds up crafting, in a surprise collaboration, the score for the film. Who knew that Hedges was a musician? Twenty minutes of deleted scenes (in 1080i) with optional Hedges commentary are simply extended moments virtually indistinguishable from their shortened counterparts. Explanation for most of the elisions has to do with concepts like pace and economy. Pacing, alas, is not among the many problems of Dan in Real Life. (That's a compliment, I suppose.) Three minutes of lo-def outtakes are what you expect; and an Easter egg on the special features menu leads to another minute's worth. The platter opens with the standard Blu-ray reel, a Pixar reel, a Disney reel, and the trailer for Becoming Jane.
A Blu-ray reel likewise cues up on startup of Sony's Rachel Getting Married BD in addition to HiDef trailers for Waltz with Bashir, I've Loved You So Long, and Synecdoche, New York. Troll the menu to locate another cache of HD trailers for Passengers, The Class, The Wackness, Capote, Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway, "Damages": Season One, The Da Vinci Code, and Rachel Getting Married itself. As for the film's own 1.85:1, 1080p transfer: impeccable. This privileged autumnal getaway pops with lovely browns and oranges; given the colour scheme, you'd think that skin tones would be sallow and jaundiced--they're not. There's a hint of noise (the picture was shot with the HDCAM), but it's reminiscent enough of grain to be strangely fitting. The attendant Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio feels warm and enveloping. I feel manipulated. The first of two commentaries teams producer Neda Armian, screenwriter Jenny Lumet, and editor Tim Squyres and makes you want to punch holes in your head. It's awful stuff, trainspotting and trite and full of divulgements like how roles originally written for women went to men (and vice versa). Learning that Lumet's famous daddy was the source of many of the Irwin character's idiosyncrasies is touching in the way that one says things are touching when trying to impress girls. In the second yak-track, Rosemarie DeWitt flies solo for some reason--probably the same reason Hathaway is more or less a no-show in the supplements. "A" for effort, but if you've ever talked to an actor at length about the work they do, you know what you're in for: lots of gushing, lots of wasted breath.
A batch of standard-def featurettes (73 mins. in toto) includes a making-of that has the loose-structured rhythm of the movie proper (and note the slates bearing the film's terrible working title, Dancing with Shiva), a doc on the music of Rachel Getting Married, and a post-screening Q&A (by far the biggest chunk at 50 minutes) taped at the Jacob Burns Center that is, typically at this point, sans Hathaway. (It's also sans Adebimpe, DeWitt, and Winger, though Demme and a pissed-looking Armian do show.) Again, if you've ever actually attended one of these things, you'll know better than to volunteer to watch one at home. Listless and aimless don't begin to describe it. Well, yeah, they do. Nine deleted scenes (19 mins.) unearth two protracted AA-meeting confessionals, a long car ride with Rachel and Kym in which Kym makes another of her ridiculous recovering-junkie suggestions, and more in the rain with a receiving line. Pretty dreary stuff, and no surprise that any of it was chopped--thus mitigating the absence of any commentary for them. Originally published: March 17, 2009.
1. An apologist, I guess, I liked Hathaway better in Get Smart, where she wasn't asked to carry the load of a "serious" performance, this reach for the brass ring yielding a sketch that seems laboured and beyond her range. I don't know that she'll ever be able to anchor a film on her own--and her turn here reminds me of Marilyn Monroe's performance in The Misfits: it's a pretty good try, but that's all it is. Hathaway's Kym rarely registers as something other than an afterimage of angst. return
2. Hedges does this himself in Dan in Real Life, demonstrating what a pale imitation of Demme looks like. If you truly want to scrape the bottom of the barrel, though, refer to Juno for what can happen not just when score becomes both crutch to real independence and front to gaping superficiality...but when a mass audience buys it hook, line, and sinker. return