Rachel Getting Married (2008)
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mather Zickel, Bill Irwin, Anna Deavere Smith, Anisa George, Tunde Adebimpe, Debra Winger
Directed By: Jonathan Demme
There’s been a lot of dramas featuring dysfunctional families who spend much of the movie airing out the various grievances and problems each character has with one another and themselves. Most of these films tend to leave me cold. Either the characters are presented as so flawed that they become such despicable human beings that I’m unable to empathize with their plights, or their problems are so forced and outlandish that I can’t relate, or the resolutions are so manipulated that the whole thing devolves into maudlin TV movie territory.
Luckily, Jonathan Demme‘s Rachel Getting Married is a step above most family dramas, avoiding all these traps by presenting sympathetic characters with real problems with no typical resolutions. Their conflicts feel real without being overblown, yet Demme treats them and their stories with a level of affection that allows us to wish the best for them, even if we see them at their worst. The movie follows Kym (Anne Hathaway), a recovering drug addict who is released from rehab in order to attend her sister Rachel’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) wedding, where the bubbling family tensions threaten to come to a head as the family gathers for the blessed event.
Rachel Getting Married is more about the quiet moments of raw emotion than melodramatic explosions of anger and tears. As such, Demme takes a low-key approach to direction, looking for naturalistic performances from his diverse cast, often employing handheld, Dogme-type visuals to create a fly-on-the-wall, home video feel that gives the whole film an intimate feeling. Demme lingers with the smaller moments of the tension-filled weekend, allowing the characters to breathe and develop naturally, giving the audience the necessary time to get to know them as people, rather than merely a collection of dysfunctions.
Surprisingly, while the film is at times profoundly sad and undoubtedly tense, with scenes of familial discord so uncomfortable that you’ll want to watch them through your fingers, it is also filled with genuine joy and sweetness. Despite the awkwardness that would come from being around Kym’s self-absorbed antics, father-of-the-bride Paul’s (Bill Irwin) desperate attempts to keep things cheery, mother-of-the-bride Abby’s (Debra Winger) tendency to stay uninvolved, and Rachel’s stress from being the centre of it all, it’s still a wedding I wouldn’t mind attending. It’s an intimate affair, mostly with friends and family, filled with laughter and music that made me smile more than it made me cringe.
Credit goes to the cast, who were uniformly excellent in a movie that relied completely on their performances to work. Much of the work feels improvisational, with much of the details of these characters’ lives filled in by what’s left unsaid rather than what appears in Jenny Lumet‘s script. Hathaway is the only big name in a cast of character actors and newcomers, disappearing into the role as the fragile Kym. She’s gotten a lot attention for her stripped-down dramatic performance here, all of it deserved.
The rest of the cast is perfect in their roles, as ordinary looking actors playing ordinary people. DeWitt should get some attention of her own for her work as the title character, trying to bask in her own happiness while her sister slowly takes over with her self-absorbed histrionics. Irwin will break your heart as the overly cheerful father clearly in denial, while newcomers Mather Zickel (of The State), Anisa George, and Tunde Adebimpe (lead singer of TV on the Radio) all come off as naturals in their roles as bystanders to all the family drama.
The one flaw of the film is that there are times when Demme overindulgences in scenes that add little to the film other than additional ambiance, notably during rehearsal dinner speeches or music scenes at the wedding. It’s a tough balance, because Demme’s willingness to indulge in the quiet moments is a large part of the film’s charm, but there are a couple instances where this willingness leads him astray. It’s not a major flaw, but there were a few instances where my enjoyment turned into impatience.
But even with brief moments of overindulgence, Jonathan Demme has crafted a quiet masterpiece. I don’t normally enjoy family dysfunction dramas, for the reasons I listed in my opening paragraph, but I liked this one thoroughly. The emotions were raw and affecting, the moments were tender, and the characters felt real. It puts you through the same emotional journey the characters go through, from emptiness, to discomfort, to despair, and eventually to acceptance, with a resonance that stays with you long after the film is done.