by Mark and Jonathan Schumann
We will miss Jonathan Demme.
Since 1974 — when he first hit the screen directing Caged Heat — this Oscar-winning movie maker could impress, surprise and amaze. But he could not bore because he never borrowed from himself. He always started with a blank screen.
For this father and son, as we have watched and talked movies for so many years, Demme’s films still give us so much to discuss. When the director shines he soars; when he disappoints he fascinates. As we look at his career, we each have our picks.
Jonathan: Something Wild (1986)
This is likely my favorite of Demme’s films. It’s literally everything. Melanie Griffith has never been better as Lulu, a con artist and the original manic pixie dream girl who takes Jeff Daniels’ Wall Street stiff on a wild ride. Just when you think it’s a by-the-books romp com about mismatched personas, the film takes a dark, scary turn. We don’t get films that are so atonal and intent of defying genre standards. Extra points for the fantastic music from The Talking Heads.
Mark: Philadelphia (1993)
A decade after AIDS emerged, Demme directed the first big-budget movie that dared to explore its impact. Without letting the film lose its humanity, the director avoids the sensational to spotlight the sensitive, bypasses what could be maudlin to showcase what can be moving. Tom Hanks won his first Oscar for a multi-layered study of a man who wants to quietly live without attention. But that becomes impossible when he stands up to prejudice, misunderstanding and hate. Demme’s direction is clear, certain and compelling.
Jonathan: Silence of the Lambs (1991)
A classic that I could truly watch over and over again. Demme turned the serial killer thriller genre on its head with this taut, chilling film. Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling is a heroine for the ages, and a true match for Anthony Hopkins’ iconic Hannibal Lector. Demme’s visual mastery is on full display here. No film has used close ups to greater effect.
Mark: Melvin and Howard (1980)
Yes, Demme can make us chuckle. And smile. This outrageous comedy – that imagines the possibilities of an ordinary man inheriting Howard Hughes’ fortune – studies how people deal with hope when they live to be hopeless. Demme finds the humor where other directors may only see tragedy, warmth where others may feel cold. He deliberately varies the rhythm, slowing the movie to examine why an old, rich man may have selected his benefactor from thin air.
Jonathan: Rachel Getting Married (2008)
Demme achieved the impossible with this film about familial discord. He made Anne Hathaway seem human. As a recovering addict let out of rehab for her sister’s wedding, Hathaway has never been so unaffected, vulnerable and believable. The film’s shot with a low key, verite style, recalling dogma films like The Celebration and Italian for Beginners. Hathaway’s great, but the supporting performances steal the show here. Though much heralded as the return of Debra Winger – who is fine as Hathaway’s emotionally withholding mother — Rosemarie Dewitt and Bill Irwin are the standouts.
Mark: Swing Shift (1984)
While many considered this sentimental look at domestic life during World War II a disappointment, a fresh look reveals what Demme could see that, perhaps, others missed. The director demonstrates his keen visual sense to capture details of everyday life, from how people live to where people work, why they cry and when they love. At a time in history when women had to fill jobs usually done by men, Demme never underestimates the impact of change. And he lets us savor the chemistry between Hawn and lovely Christine Lahti who was Oscar nominated.
Thank you, Jonathan Demme, for all the times at the movies we will continue to talk about because you always insisted on another take. Rest in peace.
A look at Jonathan Demme’s final narrative film
by Mark Schumann
The Reel Dad
No matter if a movie succeeded at the box office, Jonathan Demme gave us something to talk about. And, for more than 40 years at the movies, he never stopped bringing fresh ideas to the screen.
Demme’s final narrative film, Rikki and the Flash, in 2015, is far from his best. Working with a troubled screenplay from Diablo Cody, the director can’t find a way to plausibly explore a complicated relationship between a mother who refuses to grow up and a daughter who refuses to grow. But the director tries. And, when Demme tries to make something work on screen, he always makes the effort interesting.
Of course, the director knows that, on screen, Meryl Streep can do just about anything. She masters accents, plays musical instruments and discovers the nuance of any character she plays. She is today’s best reason to go to the movies. What Streep can’t do is magically make a weak script into something strong. While the actress can make any character come to life, and inspire belief in most situations, she can face an uphill battle when confronted with a weak screenplay. This poses a reel challenge for even the most accomplished actress.
Ricki and the Flash doesn’t work for many reasons. Yes, its premise is promising; many a baby boomer may long for the days of rock and roll while confronting family changes. The cast is first rate, adding Oscar winner Kevin Kline and Broadway legend Audra MacDonald to the mix. Director Demme won an Academy Award for Silence of the Lambs and screenwriter Diablo Cody won an Oscar for Juno. But none of them seems to be certain what movie they are making. And the creators leave Streep on her own to create movie magic.
The film should work. The star is well cast in a made-to-order role of a rock-and-roll singer who left her family behind to pursue her dream to become a music legend. Things haven’t worked out as she planned. She spends her days working in a high-end grocery store and her evenings performing in a dive bar. And, over the years, she has become estranged from her children. This sets up a classic mother-daughter confrontation that becomes interesting to watch because the daughter on screen is played by Mamie Gummer, Streep’s real-life daughter.
The problems center on Cody’s script. This daring screenwriter, who explores the challenge of teenage pregnancy in Juno and the disappointments of superficial relationships in Young Adult, stands back this time, tossing off artificial situations and weak one-liners in place of exploring real emotions. Instead of getting under the surface of the family dynamics, Cody teases with exposition and avoids developing connections. While Streep works hard to bring the lead to life, Cody gives the other cast members little to work with.
Visually, Demme makes the movie look better than it sounds, making us wish that the script merited such crisp direction. While the director is familiar with familial contention — with the strong Rachel Getting Married to his credit — that film had a script. And this one simply has ideas. Sadly, Demme’s final narrative feels like the actors showed up on the set without a sense of what characters to play. Working with weak material, Demme tries to make it all look cohesive.
Streep, though, manages to find as much character as the piece contains. And, when she sings, she makes us believe that Ricki could still be a star. If only the words in the script could create as much magic as when the actress interprets the lyrics of a song. Streep makes us believe almost anything when she sings. And, in Ricki and the Flash, she sings quite a bit.