Unfortunately, Ricky Gervais’ first Hollywood feature in a starring role is a disappointment. Ricky himself is great (as is Greg Kinnear), but his persona gels badly with what is a very traditional and uninspiring Hollywood rom-com. It’s like he’s in a different, much edgier and more interesting, movie. Tea Leonie flounders in an underwritten role. I look forward to Gervais / Hollywood product, but this first outing starts strongly then fizzles its way towards mediocrity and formula.
Jonathan Demme’s “little picture that could” is a lovely, moving, often funny family drama that is engaging and truthful throughout. It focuses on Kim (Anne Hathaway), a troubled addict who comes out of rehab for her sister Rachel’s wedding at their family homestead in Connecticut. The family portrait is fully realized and extremely involving, but the film is also a strong depiction of the sort of natural multicultural acceptance we should look forward to seeing more of under Obama’s America. The finely observed script by Jenny Lumet is performed with gusto and great naturalism by an extremely smart ensemble of actors, led by Hathaway in a performance that could (and probably should) get her the Best Actress Oscar (she is nominated); Rosemary DeWitt, feisty and strong, as the titular Rachel; Bill Irwin as their doting and well-meaning but ultimately confused father Paul; and Mather Zickel, who shines in a breakout role as the sweet-natured and intelligent Best Man Kieran, a fellow addict who might just harbour the strength Hathaway’s Kim so desperately needs.
Film Mafia asked Mather Zickel (pictured, from the film) about the way the film was created, and was especially interested in the multicultural aspects to the film. His comments are here (answering Film Mafia’s questions):
What was the process? Some of your lines in the big scenes, such as the rehearsal dinner, appear improvised. And I reckon that we see the actual cameras sometimes (perhaps masquerading as the wedding videographer(s)). How free was the set / the dialogue? How long were the takes for these big set-pieces?
It was an extremely free working environment. It was important that the characters had considerable history together as family and friends. The script absolutely reflected this. When I first read it, I was struck by how specific these people seemed. Their manner of speaking, private jokes they had between each other, etc. were really of a certain place. I could see immediately that these were educated, artistic, economically comfortable, Metropolitan Area people. The film was shot and took place at a nice old house in Stamford, Connecticut. That’s about half an hour from Manhattan, depending on traffic. I really felt the dialogue reflected their education and their neuroses.
So, we did about 90% of the scripted dialogue and maybe 10% improvisation. The rehearsal dinner scene was a great example of this. I seem to remember it being no more than 5 pages in the script but we shot it in two 45 minute takes. As an actor, I found this exhilarating. We were passing food, and joking around, and flirting, and doing everything people do at such an affair. Some of the toasts and exchanges were scripted (Keiran’s toast, Emma’s, Kym’s) but then, Jonathan Demme would shout out “Bill! Make a toast! Beau, say something!” and so these things would be incorporated. We never rehearsed. These things would be done on the fly, so they were remarkably fresh and they also helped to quickly bond us as a cast. There was little to no camera rehearsal so we never knew what would be caught on film. It kept us really engaged and awake. There were always two or three cameras going plus the wedding videographer and smaller hand held cameras used by the guests. All this different footage was incorporated into the movie.
The film depicts an almost utopian comfort with multi-ethnicity: a white family and a black family in happy union, other ethnicities represented throughout, and a constant musical reference to multiculturalism. A few critics have worried that it’s a liberal dream, but I found it a powerful and hopeful message: this is what we all could be. How much of that was in the script and how much came from the director?
I think it came from both. But the multicultural aspect came about in a much more organic way than I think people know. Jenny Lumet’s original title for the movie was Dancing With Shiva. And there was no reference to the race of any of the characters, although it seemed that the family was white. However, the wedding ceremony and reception were very elaborately described and took up about the last quarter of the film. And this wedding was always Indian themed. I personally found that amusing because there are no Indian characters in the story. It was clearly an aesthetic cooked up by Rachel and her maid of honor, Emma. But the script always denoted saris and Nehru jackets and all that stuff. Then, of course, Kym makes a reference to herself as Shiva the Destroyer during her toast.
With regard to Sydney being black, that came about during casting. I originally auditioned for the part of the groom, so I don’t think there were many pre-conceived notions about this being a bi-racial wedding. Jonathan had seen Tunde Adebimpe’s work before and certainly knew him from his band TV on the Radio. Tunde has such a gentle centered presence that he seemed a perfect antidote to the craziness of Rachel’s family. Many of the actors cast as Sydney’s family were people that Jonathan met in New Orleans while making his documentary about Hurricane Katrina. A lot of these people lost their homes in the flood.
The main corps of the musicians are from the Middle East. Zafir Tawil who played the violin is Palestinian and Jonathan met him while working on a documentary about Jimmy Carter’s diplomatic efforts in that region called, The Man From Plains. Basically, the entire guest list was comprised of people Jonathan met while working on other projects. He is very passionate about music and has many musician friends so it was not a big stretch to see people like Robyn Hitchcock and Donald Harrison Jr. and Sister Carol East. And since both Tunde and Bill Irwin’s character work in the music industry I think it makes sense that all those people would be at the wedding. But it did feel a bit like Jonathan was planning his own dream wedding.
I find it interesting that so many people respond to the film as a statement about multi-culturalism. I think it’s a beautiful film because it really just tells a story about a family, it’s difficulties, and it’s healing process. The fact that there is a marriage of a black and white couple and attended by their friends of various ethnic origin is really rather secondary. And although this is a cosmopolitan family that lives very close to New York, I think they represent what is happening, quite naturally and inevitably to the world in general. There are so many people in the world today living quite close together and we are joined by media, technology, art, education and commerce. It’s simply a matter of consequence that racial barriers are breaking down. I don’t think it will be very many years until audiences won’t find anything unusual about the relationships depicted in movies like Rachel.
How much of your backstory was defined by the creative team, and how much was known by you alone? I’m thinking about the nature of your history with the Groom, why your characters lived in Hawaii, what the nature of your addiction was, and, again, the nature of your multicultural friendship?
It was scripted that Kym meets Kieran in a Narcotics Anonymous meeting and that he has been clean about seven years. It was also noted that he is business with Sydney and that they both live in Hawaii. The nature of his work was a bit vague. He is a bit of a mysterious character.
Tunde, Zafir, myself, and Beau Sia (who played Norman Sklear), all went out one night for a bit of drinking and male bonding. We decided that all these guys had met in college and had formed a crappy art rock band called Bad Tomorrow. Bad Tomorrow and some of their friendships were eventually scuttled due to us all having a fatal attraction to the band’s super sexy female bassist. Typical university guy nonsense. It was clear that Sydney(Tunde) was the coolest and most level-headed of us all and the only reason we ever stayed in contact was because of him. I decided that Kieran partied pretty hard in college and this just increased during the post-college years. I think this probably was due to his own social awkwardness and his close interest in the rock/club scene. I believe he wished he could be a rock star but didn’t have the talent or the self-confidence and was also smart enough to realize this. But booze and pot quickly evolved into coke, ecstasy, and eventually heroin sniffing and whatever else was available. I think he kidded himself into thinking he was just a weekend partier, but the weekend was coming earlier and earlier in the week. He had a false-start as an entertainment lawyer and then really just got lost fast. Eventually his life was a pitiful mess and only Sydney remained a close friend. I believe Sydney let Kieran crash for long periods of time, lent him money he never returned, and probably wiped some puke off his face. Finally Kieran became serious about his sobriety and started pulling his life together. Humility became a saving grace for him. As Sydney became a successful music producer, he was able to give Kieran work as a business manager. Kieran is very devoted to Sydney and happy that Sydney has a studio in Hawaii.
By the time Kieran meets Kym, he is in a place of relative clam and ready to have a real relationship. He knows exactly where Kym is in her recovery and is sympathetic. He kind of screws up by having sex with her because he knows that you’re not supposed to become involved with a fellow addict during their first year in recovery. She is obviously in no place to have a serious relationship with anyone. But he does truly care for her and hopes that someday they reconnect and have a chance at being together. One of the things I always loved in the script was that this future was kept deliberately vague. We don’t know what will happen and Kym has to live her life one day at a time. But if they do manage to have a life together, what better place to do that than Hawaii?