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Rachel Getting Married

Directed by Jonathan Demme
Running Time: 114 min.

Two-thirds into Rachel Getting Married, after Kym (Anne Hathaway) leaves rehab to participate in her sister’s wedding, her arrival stirs up tensions and memories. There are so many characters, unsettled relationships and unpredictable situations that a viewer’s head spins delightedly.    

Director Jonathan Demme sustains this feat of whirling prestidigitation with rambunctious style. He and cinematographer Declan Quinn simulate the shaky aesthetics of a home movie. But the hectic, true-life approach constructs a tenacious, essentially faithful vision. Avoiding the hip nihilism of repugnant family dramas like Margot at the Wedding and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Demme offers compassion. Despite the story’s adversities—Kym’s sibling rivalry with Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), the anxious protectiveness of their father Paul (Bill Irwin), their distant, now-remarried mother Abby (Debra Winger), plus the pressure of friends and in-laws—serenity keeps emerging. And it’s hard-earned.

This is a family-chaos film that’s also lively and fertile; a view of life energized by the awareness of transience, dissatisfaction, unfairness—and the will to keep going. Comparisons to Demme’s famously benevolent Citizen’s Band (1977), Melvin and Howard (1980) and Something Wild (1987) don’t explain what’s distinctive about this achievement. Centered on Anne Hathaway’s Kym, a fragile yet self-punishing emotional hurricane, it’s Demme’s most distinctively politically sensitive movie—made to look rushed and feel hurried as if heading-off disaster and documenting relief.

Not surprisingly, Rachel Getting Married follows a remarkable run of Demme non-fiction films: the plangent mortality-musical Neil Young: Heart of Gold, the sympathetic Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains and Right to Return: New Home Movies from the Lower 9th Ward, his highly original series of five half-hour docs about Hurricane Katrina survivors that focused on faith, aspiration and Southern character. These experiences inform Rachel’s Connecticut-set story with spiritual awareness about the political particulars of democracy in action, enhancing Demme’s usual family-of-man benevolence.

The motley gathering of Rachel’s wedding preparations, weekend-long dinners, 12-step meetings and domestic battles are a 21st-century update of 1980s multiculti measures. The race, gender, class mixture is blessedly free of fashion and sarcasm (as when Kym is complimented, “You’re so tiny; it’s like you’re Asian!”). Rachel is boldly—naturally—mixed. Paul has remarried interracially (to Anna Deavere Smith’s Carol) and Rachel finds a similar partner (Tunde Adebimpe’s Sidney). Asserting broad humanism, Demme offers music, of course, but primarily the rhythmed texture of voices, personalities and unconstrained behavior: A sad/funny fight between Kym and Rachel displays an uncannily knowing, even vicious, test of nerves; they wage lifelong strategies of affection and resentment until one trumps the other. Kym complains about “this little world of paranoia, judgment and mistrust,” yet a comfortable familiarity underlies her frustration. That’s the beautiful surprise of the fractiousness—and succor—conveyed in Jenny Lumet’s screenplay.

Not even Thomas Bezuca’s laudable, complex The Family Stone had this kind of exuberant resilience. Demme understands resilience as the source of democracy—of human renewal. Showing a white Jewish female and black male’s faux-India-themed wedding complete with Samba dancers is joyously One-World American. Through this sincere eccentricity, Rachel transcends the banal dirty-secrets routine of that family-gathering Dogma film, Celebration. Demme says grace (tested by Kym’s unease) during the first extended-family rehearsal dinner: a series of toasts peaking with Sidney’s kind-faced mother (Carol-Jean Lewis) alluding to paradise. She recalls those praying women from Demme’s great Beloved. This timeless moment signals life’s precariousness and appreciates its amplitude like the banquet in John Huston’s film of Joyce’s The Dead—only reversed into Demme’s gratitude for the living.

Demme surveys people who learn to make do and those who can’t. Hathaway is an ideal heroine for this with her Liza Minnelli-like eager eyes and open vulnerability. That we yield to all these characters—particularly Irwin, DeWitt and the avid Winger—affirms Demme’s trust. Rachel Getting Married’s social scale and emotional fullness would do Renoir and Altman proud—still it’s Demme’s genuine vision.

Lots of worldly horror pollutes our cinema this year—4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, Paranoid Park, Funny Games, Wanted, The Dark Knight, Lakeview Terrace—without being true to life; but Rachel Getting Married defies all that by rehearsing heaven.

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