Note: The following includes potential spoilers
When I first saw Rachel Getting Married in the middle of the Toronto maelstrom, I knew I'd have to see it again before I could write or speak about it coherently. I was sure that I liked it, but not how much -- I couldn't quite make heads or tails of the last third of the film, and having to rush off to another film prevented me from thinking about it. This week, I finally got my second viewing; I like it a lot. But what struck me the most this time around was Bill Irwin's astonishing turn as Paul Buckman, the tortured, loving father of the bride. Irwin has not gotten much love in the reviews, and that is a travesty. He gives the richest, most generous performance I've seen from anyone this year.
The IMDb informs me that Irwin, a veteran character actor, is a mainstay on Sesame Street; Wikipedia reveals that he's a clown by trade. This makes perfect sense, and indeed helps explain his complete humility in Rachel Getting Married. Remember the scene where Rosemarie DeWitt's Rachel, in the middle of an argument with Kym (Anne Hathaway), drops the bombshell that she's pregnant? Paul's reaction might be the film's most memorable moment -- he flips out, screaming and bunny-hopping over to his daughter (it's a testament to Jonathan Demme's brilliance that he puts this in the background of the shot); after things calm down a bit, he still looks like he is about to lovingly devour his family. The way he paws at his wife while randomly growling "Does anybody want a sandwich?!" is worth ten dollars all on its own.
It's a hilarious scene, but also a totally convincing and heartbreaking one. Irwin plunges into this character -- his wounds, his pain, his obstinate, self-deceiving optimism, his unconditional love for the family he has left. Paul is a real, complicated man, and his fifty-some years of history are right there on the screen, in Irwin's elastic mug, his manic gesturing (Paul's defense mechanism, we sense), his oddly distant eyes. It's a "big" performance in some ways, but it never begs for attention or tries to be a showcase for the actor. Consider Paul's "biggest" moment, when, in the middle of exuberant family merrymaking, he comes across something that stirs a terrible memory. It's a sentimental scene, turned powerful by the way Irwin delicately underplays it, letting the character fade away instead of imploding.
It's extraordinary, frankly -- a profound, unassuming work of genius. Paul doesn't have the most dialogue or screen time, not by a longshot, but I left knowing more about him than about any of his more prominent relatives. Bill Irwin for President; or, failing that, Best Supporting Actor.