You'd assume that filmmakers always feel at least some affection for their characters, even those that aren't immediately easy to like. But some filmmakers are better than others at translating that affection, at making it so vivid on-screen that we feel it too. In the early part of his career, with movies like "Handle With Care" and "Melvin and Howard" -- and even, a little later, with "Something Wild" -- Jonathan Demme proved himself as a filmmaker with a deep affection for oddball America. In those movies, his characters often drive us a little nuts at first. But by the end, they've become the kind of friends we didn't even know we wanted to make.
Demme's career took a turn away from that sort of intimate, loose-jointed filmmaking with stiff exercises like "Silence of the Lambs" and "The Manchurian Candidate," and with oversize and overwrought projects like "Philadelphia." Those are the kinds of big prestige products a director makes once he has "arrived," and often they're not nearly as good as the ones he made while he was getting there. But with "Rachel Getting Married," which premieres in Toronto Saturday night, Demme has finally scaled back, making a picture that has some of the ease and warmth of his earlier movies, although it also feels stripped down and direct in a way that's new for Demme. Anne Hathaway plays Kym, a former model who comes from a well-heeled but extremely dysfunctional Connecticut family; she's in rehab, and we learn early on that she's responsible for some horrible tragedy that the family has suffered but is reluctant to talk about. Kym's sister, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt, of "Mad Men"), is about to be married, and Kym is granted a leave to attend the wedding. She shows up in her slouchy dark clothes, with a choppy, angular haircut; her eyes, big, dark and mistrustful, seem to have been programmed to shut everyone out. She slings bons mots that are more icy than clever: Cooing over how thin Rachel has become, she asks her sister if she's "puking again." No one -- save her father, played by Bill Irwin -- is glad to see Kym, and everyone lets her know it. The coolest cat of all is Debra Winger's Abby, the family's deposed matriarch. Abby is the kind of woman who pops the babies out and then, for the rest of their lives, looks at them blankly as if to say, "What am I supposed to do with these?"
The pre-wedding festivities bring out the worst in everyone, and the proceedings are sometimes maddening to watch. I didn't love every minute of "Rachel Getting Married" -- long patches of it made me feel restless and annoyed, itching to get away from the aggressive, overgrown neuroses of these characters, and from their chronic self-absorption: These are people who've spent so much time avoiding self-examination that their cluelessness has become something of a fetish, a thing polished smooth like a worry stone. But just when someone says or does something that makes you want to shout at the screen, Demme pulls back and reminds us -- by focusing on a particular face, or by showing us a character's awkward body language -- that these are, quite simply, people in pain. (I suspect that's what Noah Baumbauch was trying to do, and failed to do, with "Margot at the Wedding.") Hathaway, in particular, with those wary eyes and lips that always look on the verge of quivering, brings much of that pain to the surface: This isn't a character you want to hug -- she's got too many angles -- but Demme feels so much for her that he makes us feel for her, too.
* * *
In 2003 New York-based filmmaker Peter Sollett made his feature debut with the beautifully direct "Raising Victor Vargas," about young Latino teenagers fumbling their way toward love on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Sollett's new romantic comedy, "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," which opens in Toronto Saturday night, has a bigger budget and features a sort-of star, Michael Cera. But even though Sollett is now working on a bigger scale, he hasn't made a movie that jumps up and down to get our attention: The picture is affably relaxed (in places, too relaxed -- it could use a little more dramatic tension). But, like Demme's picture, "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" gets you thinking about how a filmmaker's attitude toward his characters can make all the difference. Cera plays Nick, a young man from Hoboken who's heartbroken after his pert, snooty girlfriend, Tris (Alexis Dziena), breaks up with him. He pours his sorrow into CD mixes made specially for her, filled with the music that means the most to him, from obscure treasures by the doomed Chris Bell, of "Big Star," to more pop-culty stuff by the Cure. He's hoping the music will mean something to her too, which of course, it doesn't. But it does mean something to Norah (Kat Dennings, who recently appeared in the sadly underrated comedy "The House Bunny"), who gets ahold of the CDs and realizes that the guy who made them -- she doesn't yet know Nick -- has uncannily connected with her own taste in music. Nick and Norah meet one night at a club in New York, where Nick's band is playing (he's the only straight member of a three-guy queercore group called the Jerk Offs). Their mutual favorite band -- a fictional outfit called Where's Fluffy? -- is playing a secret show at an undisclosed location in the city, and they set out on an adventure to find it.
They may not find Fluffy, but they do find love on this rock 'n' roll Easter-egg hunt through post-midnight Manhattan. And that, Sollett said, when I spoke with him briefly on Friday, is the point. Both "Raising Victor Vargas" and "Nick and Norah" (which is based on a novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan) deal with the subject of young people finding their way to each other. "I like love," Sollett says, "and that's a great way to talk about it. 'Vargas' was really an extension of the actors in [the movie]. It was very much about their experience. This was a little bit different, because the experience of the characters in this film was a lot more like my own. I had a bridge-and-tunnel experience. I grew up in Brooklyn and then in Staten Island.
"When I was 20, I met a girl in Manhattan -- I was going to NYU at the time. I was living in Staten Island; she was living in Manhattan. I would commute in every night to spend the evening with her but didn't have a place to stay. So I would sort of stay until 2, 3, 4, 5 and then go home and go to work the next day. So I just really identified with what these characters were experiencing."
"Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" is different from "Raising Victor Vargas," Sollett points out, in that it's less about coming of age within a family. "This one, to me, is about finding the courage to expose your true self to someone, and the reward you can gain by doing that."