Jonathan Demme has had a long and varied career. After stints as a film critic, movie publicist, and TV director (including an episode of Columbo), he apprenticed himself to famed B-flick genius Roger Corman, before emerging as a writer-director of his own films in the mid-1970s. Deft execution, intelligence, and breadth, rather than some quickly identifiable sensibility, define Demme’s oeuvre. His early films showcased his broad interests and flexible abilities: a rowdy comedy (Handle with Care) and a goofy road movie (Crazy Mama); a capable thriller (The Last Embrace); and a subtly lovely and strange bit of American myth-making (Melvyn and Howard).
Demme hit his stride in the mid 1980s with another road flick, Something Wild, a rollicking and savage film that stretched comedy as far as it could go toward terror. The director then cunningly pulled the reverse trick in Silence of the Lambs, a film filled with authentic chills but also a sly, winking laughter (remember the Bon Appétit magazine in Hannibal Lecter’s cage before he munches the two guards?) that left it teetering on the edge of camp. In recent years Demme’s interest in fiction features seems to have waned—he’s the rare director equally at home in documentary—and in a recent New York Times article he confessed to almost abandoning them altogether. Then, he says, someone put an “irresistible” script into his hands, and he changed his mind.
The script was first-time screenwriter Jenny Lumet’s study of a Connecticut family hosting the wedding of its eldest daughter. Rachel Getting Married relies on a reliable recipe: take one sister fresh out of drug rehab, soak her in caustic resentments, fold her into her older sister’s two-day wedding bash; spice the mix with a bruising parental divorce and remarriages on both sides; add one enormous and terrible family secret everyone tries not to mention; and bake. What you end up with lies somewhere between The Squid and the Whale, In the Bedroom, You Can Count on Me, and Capturing the Friedmans. Can you guess this is not a feel-good experience? The business of laying bare a family’s rage and grief seldom is.
All these bad feelings revolve around Kym (Anne Hathaway), furloughed rehab patient and younger sister of the bride. The film opens with her arrival at the spacious old New England home where her father, her stepmother, and a large and boisterously multicultural crowd of friends have gathered for several days of wedding fun. Lumet portrays the family as almost a parody of wealthy, enlightened WASP liberalism. The father, Paul (Bill Irwin), is married to African-American Carol (Anna Deavere Smith), sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) is marrying a black man, Sidney (Tunda Adebimpe), and the wedding guests form a kind of rainbow utopia. Picture samba dancers, people wearing leis, a crew-cut Asian guy in pink sunglasses, an elderly man in cowboy shirt and string tie, and a black soldier in uniform, all noshing on empanadas and saag paneer.
All the festive, loose, good-natured gaiety provides a shrewd setup for the sibling drama, because Kym is wound as tight as a person can be. While we don’t know exactly what her complaints are, she’s clearly carrying a big burden of grievance; she’s the party-spoiler, bringing misery into the fun, and rather than shrink away, she embraces the role with grim relish, spewing scattershot insults thinly disguised as friendliness. Greeted by her father, Kym inquires how her sister is doing. “Are all of her latent food issues coming up? Is she still hoarding Snickers and Cool Whip under the bed?” Greeting Rachel herself, she compliments her on her slimness: “I would swear to God that you were puking again!”
Kym is, to use the technical term, a piece of work. Though she seems authentically tormented at a group addiction meeting, lost in inner turmoil as fellow users tell their stories, elsewhere she is preening and poisonous. Sulky, histrionic, and bitter, Kym all but ruins a round of toasts to Rachel at the wedding rehearsal dinner—watching with open jealousy as friends lavish her sister with generous and witty best wishes, then rising to unload her own verbose and inappropriately confessional monologue. Her self-absorption, brilliantly performed by Hathaway, is toxic, and watching it makes you squirm.
Rachel Getting Married is an artful triumph of leisurely pacing and casual-seeming camera work. The film follows the shape of the wedding preparations, and its set-piece scenes have an impromptu, documentary feel that lends the family’s searing melodrama more authenticity than it otherwise might possess. In the Times article, Demme spoke of aiming at “that feeling you get when you look at home movies, that you’re in the room, that this is really happening.” Accordingly, he had his cameraman, Declan Quinn, shoot in high-definition video, with the shots not plotted out in advance, leaving it to Quinn’s discretion (and, later, Tim Squyres’s smart editing) to find the proper through line.
Making a film this way means a lot of literally in-your-face camerawork—Hathaway called acting in it “an advanced course in ignoring cameras”—and the techniques reinforce the story’s emotional power, with the handheld camera imparting a shaky visual fragility, and the close-ups delivering an insistent intimacy. The film’s lush soundtrack follows an eccentric conceit, with all the music played by musicians actually in the movie, the rock band and jazz saxophonist and others performing at the wedding and rehearsal dinner, or practicing in the background (“Will someone please tell them to stop?!” one sister shouts during a terse family moment). This simultaneity—we hear only the music that characters hear as well—is another sly way Demme bolsters his film’s realism.
Overall the result is a conspicuously Robert Altman–like quality, hectic and yet focused, with individual dramas playing out against the larger clamor of the group. (Demme has cited Altman’s 1978 movie A Wedding as an inspiration.) As in Altman, overlapping dialogue merges private tête-à-têtes into the collective social noise, creating constant motion and a convivial background babble that finally cannot camouflage what’s happening as the family falls apart in the middle of it all. Rachel’s nuptials approach, and conversation yields to confrontation, then finally to violent recrimination as the family secrets—mostly, one family secret—come churning up. Pity poor Sidney, marrying into this crew.
Rachel Getting Married is less satiric-minded than Nashville or A Wedding. An occasional line carries a charge of mordant mirth, as when Rachel, enraged by Kym’s provocations, shouts at her, “You’re suffering from acute boundary issues!” But for the most part we are meant to be engaged, and harrowed, by the family history that emerges—“the fights, the screaming, the loneliness, the blame, the divorce, Mom and Dad, everything,” Rachel wails. The film fetches up some crushing moments. We see that the failure to come to terms with loss and guilt has all but destroyed Rachel and Kym’s parents—especially their mother. Portrayed, in a brief but devastating turn by Debra Winger, she is a woman so hollowed out by grief, so incapable of facing a powerful emotion of any kind, that she has become a sleepwalker in her own life.
At the end, finally, after all the suppressed hurt and rage have been unpacked and tossed around, comes a wedding. In a deft reversal, Demme and Lumet manage to summon a saving vision of humor and tenderness. The film’s close illustrates how marriage, in the best way, can aid escape—the ritual opening a passageway, fostered by our friends, our loves, and our hopes, toward a different, better way of being. Amid all the family wreckage, Rachel Getting Married extends a surprising, graceful hope that the sacrament of marriage, conducted by enthusiastic players in a motley new millennial form, may yet flip tragedy into comedy, rescuing the timeless promise that, as the Poet wrote, “Jack shall have Jill, / Naught shall go ill.”