After a recent screening of Rachel Getting Married in Pleasantville, NY, Jonathan Demme confessed that, for several years following his remake of The Manchurian Candidate, he lost interest in fiction films. (During that time, he made the documentaries Neil Young: Heart of Gold and Jimmy Carter Man from Plains.) That helps explain the directorial departure that is Rachel Getting Married, a film with a present-tense title that helps convey the immediacy of its documentary style. Shooting to HD tape rather than 35mm film magazines, Demme and his Man from Plains cinematographer, Declan Quinn, let the camera roll through long takes, staging a momentous family gathering and capturing it in a warm, disarming fly-on-the-wall style.
The film takes place on two important occasions. One of them is the marriage of Rachel Buchman (Rosemarie DeWitt) to her beau Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), under the auspices of Rachel’s dad, Paul (Bill Irwin), and, however briefly, her estranged mom, Abby (Debra Winger). The other is the return to the family home of wayward Kym (Anne Hathaway), who’s been hidden away for some time in rehab. The first section of the film is rife with awkward, sometimes bleakly hilarious, moments in which Kym, who imagines this world of family members, party guests, and even the impending wedding itself to all be in orbit around her, speaks bluntly, badly, and out of turn. She’s fixated on her problems, her recovery process, and the feeling that everyone in the room should be mighty impressed that she’s standing on her own two feet.
It’s cringeworthy stuff, but effective. As obnoxious and pathetically egocentric as Kym is in these early scenes, I still felt drawn to her, sympathetic to that irrational resentment she must have had that even in her absence her family’s life had been moving forward — that sense of insignificance, of irrelevance to the lives of the people she loves and who she hopes will love her in return. It helps that Hathaway is revealing herself to be not only uncommonly lovely but also quite expressive — here, her face is framed by the kind of short, uneven haircut that somehow suggests a recent history of clutching at straws and accented by the slightly too-black eyeliner curling around the outside and underneath of her droopy lids — and her performance here is almost certainly her best yet. She’s full of intelligence and disdain, self-regard and regret, evincing little self-pity and less resort to the kind of conscious high-decibel emoting that too often permeates these autumnal family dramas. For about 30 minutes, her behavior feels hip, snarky, kind of fun. For the balance of the film, she quietens down, and it becomes obvious that she’s living at a pained remove from the easy merriment around her.
What Hathaway portrays so well is the way that a fierce intellect can become an impediment to the connections the person attached to it needs to make, especially when pride is involved. The most unsubtle element of Rachel Getting Married is the device of an enduring family tragedy that writer Jenny Lumet drops heavily into the proceedings early on, offering a prism through which everyone’s behavior must be viewed, Kym’s most of all. For a while, the film starts to feel a little pat, listing as it takes on familiar emotional water. But the loose style of performance and camerawork eventually wins out, elevating the more humdrum material and allowing the film’s formidable humaneness and endorsement of generosity to carry the day. The final third of the film, roughly, is taken over by the mostly plotless marriage ceremony and wedding party immediately afterward, an affair that stretches into the night and features singing (by Demme compadré Robyn Hitchcock), dancing (with some body parts moving at an astonishing velocity), and generally high sentiments. There are some low moments, too — a pinched, sorrowful performance by Winger, going home early, puts some of the emotional history in relief — but the whole affair feels so miraculously indie-film cozy, such a vision of the dysfunctional family seen in the best possible light, that the film’s emotional payload threatens to disintegrate in a cloud of unreasonably high spirits.
But there’s a real joy, there — genuine feelings of warmth that the cinema rarely manages to convey with such unalloyed sincerity and that thus have great value. And there’s a boldness to the conception that wins out, with Demme’s almost verité form lending it a deceptively nonchalant shapelessness that wears well. For long sections of the film, we just watch. And inasmuch as we might have identified, devilishly, with Kym during the film’s opening passages, where she brought scathing, sardonic commentary to the party, we may now find ourselves in her place again, but this time as mostly mute spectator, taking in the good times, the expressions of familial love, and the celebrations, ruminating on their meaning as an ideal to which we might ourselves aspire — only, heartbreakingly, from the outside looking in. For long passages, Kym is no longer the main character. And it’s during these scenes that she starts to understand. It’s clear in the film’s very last minutes that Kym has achieved a kind of clarity, a moment when, looking inward, she didn’t like everything she saw. The film’s ending is unresolved, but you can feel Demme’s gentle touch and optimism. She’s got her chin up. She’s gonna lick her demons. There may be more tears along the way, sure. But this film takes place in a world where, eventually, the needy among us will find family, friends, even strangers, who will embrace them.