Rachel Getting Married is a terse, smart, funny and tough family drama about forgiveness and failure written by Jenny Lumet; it's also a loose, smart, broad and bright film about family and love directed by Jonathan Demme. When these two things are in sync, the end result is something truly impressive – a moving story that appeals to your heart and soul without insulting your intelligence, a film full of big scenes that never stoops to the most obvious possible iteration of those big scenes, a movie loaded with great and sincere performances from the top down. When the two parts of Rachel Getting Married fall out of synch – as they do, most notably, in the last third of the film during Demme's raucous, joyous post-wedding reception – it's less catastrophic than it is curious, and the final film is still very much worth watching.
Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) is getting married; her little sister Kym (Anne Hathaway) is coming for the big event ... which involves getting picked up from her most recent stay at a rehab clinic. A cynic could look at Hathaway's part in Rachel Getting Married and paraphrase Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder: Always go full rehab. And while it's true that the Academy and critics tend to reward gritty, hyperbolic portraits of drug-addiction's misery, the fact is that Hathaway's Kym is not quite as simple as that. Kym knows all the things she's done wrong; she also knows she'll keep doing some of them. Immediately, in the car, the lines of battle are drawn, with Kym going on the offense as part of her defense mechanisms, asking her dad (Bill Irwin) and step-mother (Anna Deavere Smith) about how Rachel's holding up: "Are all of her latent food issues coming up? Is she still hoarding Snickers and Cool Whip under the bed?" Soon, Kym's plunged into the thick of the preparations for Rachel's wedding, responding to the chaos by adding to it. ...
Shot with hand-held cameras, Rachel Getting Married brings us into the heart of a family, but, to screenwriter Lumet's credit, never over-explains itself or says everything out loud. In the rehearsal dinner, Kym offers a toast to Rachel and her fiancée Sydney (Tunde Adebimpe) that starts as an attention-begging bit of showboating ("I'm Shiva the destroyer, and I am your harbinger of doom for the evening ...") and continues as Kym flays herself to the bone in front of the crowd, her self-serving self-loathing punctuated by asides of nervous laughter as if she were terrified of silence. Hathaway may be best-known for her porcelain good looks, but here she digs in to a character, hard enough to show bruises, and she does not make Kym 'sympathetic' so much as she builds Kym into a person who earns our sympathy.
But Rachel Getting Married is hardly a one-woman show; Bill Irwin has a few great moments as Kym and Rachel's father; DeWitt manages to capture both sibling rivalry and sisterly compassion, petty jealousy and rough-hewn forgiveness; as Kym's mother, Debra Winger, much like Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People, plays a person both cut off from her feelings and captured in the grip of them. On the groom's side, Adabimpe is stalwart as Sidney, while Mather Zickel gives a funny, charming, loose performance as best man Kieran, who has more in common with Kym than just a big role in the ceremony.
Lumet's script is, perhaps, the best thing about Rachel Getting Married; many things are left unsaid, many things are unexplained, and many things are said and explained through the natural ebb and flow of the conversation. Lumet has an ear for dialogue, but she also has an eye for detail, like when Kym steps into "her" room at the family's house; it's preserved as if in amber, still and airless and perfect and dead. Lumet also captures the jumbled, joyous chaos of a modern wedding -- the weird mix of territorial squabbles over everything from seating charts to roles in the bridal party and warm, loving, celebration. And as we go from rehearsal to reception, difficulty to disaster, we learn how much Kym truly has to atone for, and Hathaway, Demme and Lumet bring to life someone who has, through her own fault, earned a crushing sorrow that she will feel every day of her life: Kym notes, of her gravest error, how "I can live with it, but I can't forgive myself ..."; Hathaway makes us believe it. At the same time, Rachel Getting Married is very funny -- from quick-cut gags to smart character-driven asides to a character's explosion of annoyance late in the film that may echo the audience's feelings about one of the film's devices.
Director Demme has spent the past few years making glossy entertainments (The Trouble with Charlie, The Manchurian Candidate) and digital documentaries (Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains, Neil Young: Heart of Gold). Rachel Getting Married offers him a chance to get back to his roots while still displaying all the talent and craft that moved him forward; the decision to shoot the film, in his words, "like the most beautiful home movie ever made," does a lot to help build the intimate, inside mood of the film. If one thing seems at odds with the small-scale, carefully-crafted tone of Lumet's script, it's the excess and enthusiasm that Demme brings to the closing reception scenes.
I can accept that Rachel and Sidney's wedding is full of talented friends and, thanks to Sidney's career in the industry, live music; when Robyn Hitchcock and Sister Carol perform at the reception, I found myself distracted, Demme's desire to include his talented friends undercutting the talent he had shown in telling the story. Even with that minor moment of excessive exuberance -- and, really, who among us hasn't been inspired to an excess of exuberance at a wedding? -- Rachel Getting Married is a rich, real and smart drama, one that doesn't just mark the arrival of an exciting new screenwriter; Rachel Getting Married may wind up being the film that took Anne Hathaway from being a name-brand movie star to being recognized as a talented, committed and gifted actress.