Rachel Getting Married, directed by Jonathan Demme, is the latest in a long line of movies about weddings at which a troublesome guest stirs up repressed familial and social tensions. When stripped to its most basic elements, the film's plot — which follows emotionally unstable, charismatic Kym (Anne Hathaway) as she leaves rehab to attend the gigantic wedding of her sister, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), and wake her family's sleeping dogs — is virtually identical to those of films from The Philadelphia Story (1940) to Margot at the Wedding (2007) and even this year's Mamma Mia!. While Jenny Lumet's screenplay regrettably fails to avoid the clichéd suppressed family tragedies and dysfunctional archetypal characters that define this subgenre, it — along with Demme's typically vibrant, engaging direction and an ensemble of remarkable performers — imbues the potentially tired devices with unexpected nuance, humor, and truth.
As in his best films (Something Wild, The Silence of the Lambs) Demme, with help from production designer Ford Wheeler and costume designer Susan Lyall, demonstrates a passion for set and costume design that enriches the film immensely. Every piece of jewelry worn and every colorful decoration hung on the wall of the Victorian home in which most of the film takes place subtly speaks volumes about the collective story of the people who acquired them.
Those people are realized with exhilarating skill by the film's large cast. Hathaway's character in the 2006 hit The Devil Wears Prada was so light and fluffy that it became easy to forget her pulverizing performance as the hopeful Texan princess turned embittered widow in 2005's Brokeback Mountain. In this film she provides a bracing refresher course. Watching Kym go on one of her many lengthy, relentless tirades during the film's rehearsal dinner, throwing grenades of social impropriety like "I haven't seen most of you since my last stint in the big house," induces the painful physical reaction invoked by intimately engaging with such a troubled person. Hathaway creates a character of remarkable intricacy: Her Kym is not merely a nuisance but fiercely loving and even well-meaning. Her facial expressions, her posture, and several powerful speeches she delivers at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings suggest that her tendency toward wreaking havoc makes her as miserable as it does her family. As the sister described by Kym as "a saint," DeWitt matches Hathaway's intense energy as the other daughter tormented by the familial role that she has been conditioned to play. The sisters' relationship is one of the most well-realized aspects of the film's screenplay, marked by touching, unsentimental moments of shared humor and tenderness and arguments that burn with the uninhibited fury and honesty that people can only demonstrate with those they love and trust the most. DeWitt conveys that love and trust — even when her anger reaches its peak. The actors create one of the most realistic onscreen sibling relationships that I can recall.
In the production notes, Demme cites Robert Altman as one of his major influences. The film, shot in the cinéma vérité style with an abundance of peripheral characters and meaningful bits of casual dialogue and gesture that occur all over the densely populated screen, certainly brings to mind 1978's A Wedding, Altman's disappointing contribution to this subgenre. However, A Wedding failed because each of its 48 characters seemed too sketchy. Everybody in Rachel Getting Married — from a jaded secretary in the office where Kym takes a drug test to the briefly seen mother of the groom — is richly embodied. As Rachel and Kym's divorced parents, the always awe-inspiring Bill Irwin and Debra Winger express an entire deeply felt, troubled relationship without ever verbally interacting.
Indeed, in spite of its flaws, Rachel Getting Married convincingly conveys a family's emotional history in a span of several days, something that its many predecessors have often attempted but rarely achieved. The film renders its clichés with such complexity that it makes you realize how much the complexities of everybody's life would look like clichés to an outsider.
Directed by: Jonathan Demme
Written by: Jenny Lumet
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mather Zickel, Bill Irwin, Debra Winger