March 31, 2009

I Wanna Meet That Dad

You've probably never seen this man before.

His name is Bill Irwin. He's appeared in Across the Universe, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Midsummer Night's Dream and, apparently, many "Sesame Street" episodes and straight-to-DVD movies.

He's also the dad in last year's mini-masterpiece Rachel Getting Married, a performance that really should have garnered him an Oscar nomination. However, like everything else in Rachel not named "Anne Hathaway", he was snubbed.

Rachel Getting Married got positive reviews but was shunned by most during awards season; partly, I imagine, for demanding too much from its viewers. It attempts to be a "slice of life" drama - a camera has suddenly been dropped in on this family at a very real, emotional time for them, and the audience is expected to learn about their past struggles and present squabbles in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

Unlike other movies that span entire lifetimes, or those that exist as distinctive two-hour detours from the off-camera lives of its characters, Rachel Getting Married takes place over a weekend that feels like a weekend. When changes occur in its characters, we feel blessed, in a sense, to have caught them at this moment of such interesting family upheaval, rather than being taken out of the movie with forced revelations or extraneous controversy.

Almost every actor and actress in the film embodies a person who is about to boil over, capturing the realism of explosions made inevitable at such a stressful time, but the straw that stirs the drink is Bill Irwin's character. He is the father of the titular Rachel, along with Anne Hathaway's protagonist Kym, and he plays arguably the most cheerful, enjoyable father figure in recent movie history.

He is overwhelmed with excitement at the prospect of his daughter's marriage, and the pure joy on his face during toasts, speeches to his family and even witty family banter is unmistakable. He hops up and down like a child when he finds out about his daughter's pregnancy, and he beams when defending his honor as the master of loading the family dishwasher. Simply put, he's a marvel, and his happiness is infectious.

It also serves to carry the movie. Each time his family verbally brawls, you can see the pain on his face. The tears when he's reminded of the child he's lost, the strained look when catching his ex-wife's eye at the wedding festivities, and his refusal to engage in difficult conversations shows a man who, against all odds, was probably once even more engaging and delightful than this. You get the impression that life has beaten him down a bit, but now, at this wonderful occasion, he's recapturing how full of love and life he used to be.

This is not spelled out on paper - it comes after two viewings of this incredible movie, after being led on a rollercoaster ride of emotional ups and downs by director Jonathan Demme. However, it is further proof of the necessity of picture-perfect character actors, especially those on whom a movie hinges. Anne Hathaway has drawn a great deal of praise (and rightfully so) for being the catalyst that drives her family both together and apart, but without Bill Irwin's mesmerizing, captivating, hilarious performance, Rachel Getting Married would not be what it is. People like him, actors and actresses like him, never receive enough praise for the little things they do. So, consider this the best I can do for an actor who brought out the best emotions in me.

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