Directed by: Jonathan Demme
Written by: Jenny Lumet
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Debra Winger
Don’t be thrown by the similarities between Jonathan Demme’s new film and other quirky dysfunctional family dramas like Pieces of April and Margot at the Wedding. Even at their best, those films tend to devalue any hope for pleasure, empathy, good will, or togetherness unless slathered in irony, hatred, or the knowing impossibility of real redemption. Enter Demme, the most humanistic of American directors, a chronicler of individuals of every size, shape, and stripe. Seemingly counted out post-Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, Demme has since been amassing an impressive collection of undervalued documentaries, concert films, and adaptations/remakes. No one else could have revealed the heights and depths of sorrow and celebration lurking within Rachel Getting Married.
We begin with Kym (Hathaway), our thoroughly unlikable but fiercely honest heroine, returning from rehab to attend her sister’s wedding. We further encounter her doting dad (Irwin) and the estranged sister-bride (DeWitt), and mostly catch glimpses of their remarried mother (Winger). Before and during the wedding rehearsal we finally meet the black musician-groom (Tunde Adebimpe), his best man and Kym’s fellow rehabber (Mather Zickel), and their friends and family. I’ve been using the pronoun “we” because Rachel features highly probing, prowling handheld digital cinematography by Delcan Quinn, one of two major Dardennes-inspired camera performances (the other being The Wrestler) this year. Quinn’s eye bores into the (newly extended) family dynamics when the guests finally congregate for the rehearsal dinner. This sequence is painfully played out for all of the inherent in-jokes, awkwardness, euphoria, and generosity when one family first meets another; all of its discomforting potential is realized when, despite raucous recitations of family stories and confessions, Kym receives an embarrassed silence during her toast when she memorably dubs herself “Shiva, the destroyer of worlds” and clumsily tries to make amends according to the 12 Steps. At the heart of the film is a tragedy relating to Kym I won’t spoil, but its reverberations are clear even when its specifics are not. She, like every other major character in the film, “has her reasons,” to rephrase the famous formulation by Renoir, one of Demme’s earliest antecedents, but the trick is overcoming those reasons but for a day, an event, a celebration that engulfs the family: pride, history, and all.
There’s nothing token about the multiculturalism on hand, as those characters never exhibit nor discuss ethnic stereotypes. One waits for the objections to interracial marriage to be brought up or a Freudian slip to uneasily divide the celebrants, but thankfully nothing ever happens. Yet Demme isn’t so post-racial as to let the white, liberal Connecticut family totally off the hook. The wedding sequences themselves become overwhelmingly multiculti and polyreligious, putting into stark relief the intra-family squabbling and making it clear that the bride’s family is overcompensating. The juxtapositions of saris and rabbis, of belly dancers and jazzmen, are clever pokes at a family’s outward togetherness hiding inner turmoil. Blood is thicker than water, it seems, but wine is thicker than blood. But Demme likes people too much to hammer or humor them only; even the illusory reconciliation between sweetly drunken family members is given its fair heft, as a moment among moments, circling around a blessed event.
Some reviewers have noted a creative clash between what they see as the rote indie dysfunction of Jenny Lumet’s (daughter of Sidney) screenplay and the inclusive, celebratory tone of Demme’s treatment of the wedding-related sequences. Without knowing exactly what is Lumet’s and what is Demme’s and what is theirs jointly, I suspect the satiric diversity was there at the start but that the director enlivened and brightened what was a slyly funny but downer screenplay. The welcome cameos by Robyn Hitchcock, Roger Corman, and many of the other musicians obviously came from Demme, and they lend immeasurable texture to the jubilant wedding sequences, even when intercut with Kym’s intense black sheepishness. Music has frequently been at the heart of Demme’s evocations of Americana, mostly notably in the gawky cool of Stop Making Sense and the gentle, auburn soul of Heart of Gold. His son is a guitarist at the wedding, and as much as reality and fiction intermingle in this Dogme-influenced film, the making of and viewing of Rachel Getting Married are undoubtedly family affairs.
Make no mistake, the film is depressing; lies are uncovered, tempers slowly burn, words are exchanged that are hard to take back. The cast admirably manages to evoke the spontaneous but dutiful affection of a long overdue family get-together, before and as the agonizingly unspoken rears its head. Each performance is of a piece, although the three leading ladies (Hathaway, DeWitt, and the always welcome Winger) are especially commendable for their bottomless capacities to inflict and absorb contentment and contempt. Rachel Getting Married isn’t the beginning or the end for its characters, or for Demme, that master of pluralism, less a maestro or a ringmaster than an emcee for a boisterous, ever-enveloping get-together that’s gotta end sometime.