Best known for directing the Oscar-winning movies The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia in the nineties, Jonathan Demme has more recently concentrated on making documentaries, but now returns with the kind of quirky comedy-drama that originally made his name.
Rachel Getting Married focuses on a dysfunctional family wedding which narrowly avoids turning into a catastrophe, with Jenny Lumets compelling script creating plenty of barbed humour and poignant emotion as deep-seated tensions threaten to ruin the happy day.
Kym (Anne Hathaway) comes out of rehab in order to attend the wedding of her younger sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) held at the Connecticut country house of their music executive father Paul (Bill Irwin), with the large, multi-ethnic group of guests including their businesswoman mother Abby (Debra Winger).The relaxed celebratory mood becomes increasingly strained as this family reunion reawakens memories of a past domestic tragedy which has continued to haunt them.
In a constant state of personal crisis, recovering alcoholic Kym sprays acid one-liners like bullets, wounding herself even more than the others. After sleeping with the best man following an AA meeting, she uses emotional blackmail to persuade her sister into making her maid of honour, only to almost sabotage the rehearsal dinner with an embarrassingly confessional speech in which she apologizes for all the trouble she has caused her family. Rachel resents the way the manipulative Kym demands to be in the limelight, getting over-solicitous attention from their father, while Kyms violent confrontation with their distant mother finally leads to catharsis and reconciliation.
What Demme has done brilliantly is to blend pathos with comedy to create an Altmanesque ensemble movie featuring natural performances in an improvisatory ambience. It really feels like these people have known each other for a long time, so there is a genuine sense of intimacy and spontaneity within a party atmosphere. Lumet (daughter of film director Sidney and granddaughter of jazz singer Lena Horne) has written an astonishingly assured debut screenplay, full of wit and perception, so that we really care about the characters.
The jerky hand-held digital cameras of Declan Quinn suggest a rough-edged home-video, with a lot of close-up giving the film a slightly claustrophobic quality. There is so much music played in the film, varying from alt-rock and folk to reggae and rap, that although this might be justified by the professions of the people involved, sometimes its in danger of turning into one of Demmes rambling concert movies. But if the cool middle-class bohemian lifestyle is slightly overdone it is still refreshing that ethnicity is not even an issue in this mixed-race wedding.
Hathaway well deserves her Oscar nomination. Forget about the winsome girlishness of The Princess Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada here she does not try to make Kym too likeable, giving an intensely edgy performance as a self-centred, deeply damaged woman who can be frighteningly funny. DeWitt also impresses as Rachel, annoyed by her sisters selfishness but still concerned for her welfare, in this love/hate relationship of sibling rivalry which lies at the heart of the film.
As Paul, Irwin is a sympathetic, forgiving father, always trying to please everyone in particular, the scene in which a dishwasher-stacking contest swings from hilarity to tears is beautifully done. And as Abby, Winger manages to hint at complicated repressed emotions beneath her chilly exterior, a powerful cameo from an accomplished actress who has made too few movies of late.
Rachel Getting Married is that rarity, a truly adult indie American movie with a big star and an easily identifiable dramatic scenario which should appeal to mainstream audiences. If only most weddings were this interesting.