Rachel Getting Married
Running Time 114 minutes
Written By Jenny Lumet
Directed By Jonathan Demme
Starring Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Mather Zickel, Debra Winger
After dazzling tough film festival audiences in Venice and Toronto, Jonathan Demme’s pulsating new film Rachel Getting Married has arrived on the fall movie scene to remind me what real movies are still all about. Up to my eyeballs in draggy, shapeless amateur junk, I am genuinely thrilled to welcome a film this colorful, artistically realized and wonderfully alive. Steeped in the tradition of sound narrative form yet scrappy and unpredictable, acted and written with enormous style but with front and back doors open to experiment and surprise, it’s a film that challenges you to keep a jogger’s pace to keep up with it, then leaves you breathless. With three more months to go, Rachel Getting Married is already high on my 10-best list for 2008.
Designed and executed by the accomplished Mr. Demme (a far cry from Silence of the Lambs but every bit as polished), it has obviously been conceived as a loving homage to one of his favorite directors, Robert Altman. With its rambling plot carved from the minutiae of details, its overpopulated landscape of neurotic characters, its speeded-up handheld camera tricks and its overlapping music and dialogue, Rachel Getting Married cannot fail to remind you of every Altman, from Nashville to A Wedding, but I didn’t find it as annoying and self-indulgent as those films, and to my taste, it’s a great deal more engaging. It is also about 100 times better than last year’s obnoxious dysfunctional wedding fiasco, Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding. Like Altman, Mr. Demme uses a chaotic wedding to paint a vast canvas of human struggle in conventional brush strokes so deceptively normal that their eccentricity almost appears mundane. But unlike Altman, the result is a rich, sprawling free-for-all that is always lucid. I often left Altman films frustrated after missing about half of the dialogue. In Rachel Getting Married, I heard every word of what everyone was saying, even when the screen was filled with people and they were all talking at the same time. This is good, because the words are wisely overheard and you will want to hear them all. The writer is Jenny Lumet, a profound new talent with good genes: Her father is Sidney Lumet and her grandmother is the legendary Lena Horne. The genes pay off. She doesn’t waste any of your valuable time in unraveling the hectic story of a big, noisy, hectic interracial wedding weekend at the home of the bride’s dysfunctional family in Connecticut. Rachel, the smart, sensitive bride-to-be, has a full plate already, but the crowning blow to an already over-planned and budget-busting event that threatens to go ballistic with every delivery truck is the sudden arrival of her neurotic, sarcastic sister Kym (a career-defining performance by Anne Hathaway, in a 90-degree turn from her charming role in The Devil Wears Prada), who has just been released from her latest nine-month stint in drug rehab. Before Kym can unpack her bags, her insecurity at the family table and her constant need to be the center of attention vault her immediately in the direction of trouble when she has sex in the attic with the groom’s best man, also a recovering addict. (They met in the 12-step program, which doesn’t seem to be working.)
There’s nothing funny about drug addiction, but Mr. Demme explores the subject with warmth, affection, music and humor as Kym wreaks havoc on the wedding. Sweet, long-suffering sister Rachel (an equally excellent Rosemarie DeWitt) has her own sibling-rivalry issues, and their divorced parents (Debra Winger and Bill Irwin) have never recovered from the automobile accident that killed their only son and left the family in broken shreds—a fatal crash that was Kym’s fault. Although the family is color-blind (Dad is already remarried to a black wife of his own), it’s no secret that Mom (Winger)—also remarried, to a younger man everyone hates—is emotionally distant in the presence of her two daughters and awkwardly resistant to accepting the groom’s black relatives into the fold of her rich, white, liberal New England fold. Kym is a drama queen who is not about to let a thing like her sister’s wedding detract from her Chekhovian suffering, or the guilt over her little brother’s death. When Rachel announces just before the wedding that she is pregnant, Kym is so angry at being upstaged that she lets loose an emotional armory of verbal artillery. Then, in one of the film’s best scenes, years of festering fury are unleashed when Kym and her mother punch each other out the night before the wedding like Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey at the Polo Grounds, then Kym smashes her father’s station wagon. The doofus dad juggles every crisis by dishing up another meat loaf. All of them are paddle boats without rudders, looking for moorings.
Mr. Demme keeps the action and the subterfuge balanced with innumerable toasts; an unconventional ceremony with the groom (Tunde Adebimpe) singing Neil Young after the vows; and a wedding reception featuring an eclectic musical soundtrack of fusion that encompasses Mendelssohn, rock ’n’ roll, African drums, Brazilian sambas, afro-Cuban jazz and belly dancers. The characters are complex and the fragmented scenes move fast, but Mr. Demme’s cameras follow them, almost in sync, moving in and out at odd angles. Very few camera movements were blocked in advance, and some of the unexpected footage was captured by one of the wedding guests, played by veteran B-movie director Roger Corman. There’s a lot to see and hear, but you miss nothing. Not a single nuance goes overlooked in a catastrophic family reunion filled with threads of trust and reconciliation between parents, children and friends desperately trying to fly a flag of truce, at least for the weekend. Anne Hathaway is a stunning mixture of pain, frustration, self-absorption and acid one-liners, while everyone spins around her trying to love her unconditionally. The one thing Rachel Getting Married never runs out of is energy. It is profound, truthful, unforgettable magic at the movies.