Rachel Getting Married
Dir: Jonathan Demme
Sony Pictures Classics
Let’s face it, there are plenty of movies about weddings. Each one claws desperately to be different, but the same tropes always re-appear; last minute jitters, the discovery of some dark secret or a conflagration of old tensions between family members. It is true that when we leave home, our development in our parents and siblings’ eyes is stunted. To them, we don’t change. No matter how much we’ve accomplished or matured, we are still that same green person that stepped out the door at 18 years old.
In Jonathan Demme’s masterful Rachel Getting Married, the inner workings of a family are explored as they converge on the Connecticut homestead for said ceremony. Shot entirely with hand-held cameras, Demme and his crew aim not only get us into the hearts and minds of the characters, but also give us a front row seat at an amazing wedding. Desperate for a fresh angle since Philadelphia (1993), Demme has spent the last 15 years making bloated epics (Beloved), ill-advised remakes (The Manchurian Candidate) and concert films not unlike those that made him famous in the first place. By trimming away excess to an almost Dogma 95 degree of austerity, Demme and screenwriter Jenny Lumet (daughter of director Sidney Lumet) offer us a penetrating look into a deeply wounded family. The cinematography is shaky, the music comes only from the rehearsing wedding band. At times, we could be watching a home movie.
The film begins as Kym (Anne Hathaway in a harrowing performance that her previous work has not even hinted at) is released from a rehab center to attend the wedding of her older sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). After a nine-month absence, it is obvious her return is a source of stress for the family. Kym does nothing to help matters, full aware of her status of black sheep; she re-opens old wounds with Rachel, bickers with the maid of honor and bangs the best man. All this happens before the rehearsal dinner even begins.
Demme and Lumet make the right choices of where to heighten the drama and what to leave alone. The fact that Rachel is marrying into an African-American family (her husband-to-be Sidney is played be Tunde Adebimpe, singer of TV on the Radio. Don’t worry, he sings in the film) is never even considered a dramatic hazard. Their relationship is not the crux of the film: rather, it’s a long ago tragedy and Kym’s addiction that troubles Demme. Kym’s reintegration into the family, mixed with the arrival of estranged mother Abby (Debra Winger) is an emotional minefield and Demme uses keen intuition when he triggers some and tiptoes around others.
Many compare Rachel Getting Married to one of Robert Altman’s ensemble dramas and the similarities run deep. One of the great set pieces is an extended rehearsal dinner where both families pass Indian food and take turns toasting the bride and groom. It is these intricacies, these tributes and preparations, and the eventual wedding itself, that make the film special. Sometimes Kym’s turmoil is second to the character of the wedding itself. One powerful scene has Sidney and Rachel’s father Paul (Bill Irwin in a funny and vulnerable role) battling over who can fill a dishwasher faster. What starts as a joyful competition turns to sorrow when a relic from the past is unearthed during the game.
At the heart of the film is Kym’s battle with her self-centeredness. She cannot see beyond her own sorrow to enjoy her sister’s nuptials. Though some of the angst is perpetrated by the emptiness of society (it is hard to look past the giant house and lavish wedding) and a broken household, there is true loss at the heart of the film. But not all of Rachel Getting Married is a downer. This wedding is one of cinema’s most joyful events ever filmed. Welcome back, Jonathan Demme