Directed by: Jonathan Demme
Written by: Jenny Lumet
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Tunde Adebimpe, Anna Deavere Smith and Debra Winger
As excited as I was about Rachel Getting Married, I was also trying not to have very high expectations. Jonathan Demme is a director whose films I don't particularly enjoy. Anne Hathaway is an actress whom I have always thought was capable of good things, even if she was never given material to display her talent. Even in great films like Brokeback Mountain, she's pretty much asked to spin gold out of small, thankless roles. This is all moot though, isn't it? Because none of that has anything to do with what she's doing in this film and how well she does it.
Jonathan Demme has spent recent years directing documentary films (Man from Plains, Neil Young: Heart of Gold). Now that he's turned his focus back to narrative features, it's fascinating that he's experimenting with melding the two styles. The film has very little unnatural lighting. It utilizes mostly handheld shots with few abrupt cuts. It's very reminiscent of The Celebration, one of the Dogme 95 films, but it stands on its own. In a lesser film, this could all serve to distract. But Demme and cinematographer Declan Quinn know exactly what they're doing here. This is a total departure for Demme and it is easily his best work in years.
The film revolves around black sheep Kym (Hathaway) being released from rehab to attend her sister Rachel's (Rosemarie DeWitt) wedding. Her father (Bill Irwin) and stepmother (a wonderful Anna Deavere Smith) are clearly loving and welcoming (if cautiously so) but the rest of the family are a little more weary of Kim's antics. Rachel is tired of the way her father seems to cater to the sharp-witted, yet self-centered Kym. And their mother Abby (Debra Winger) seems removed from the whole situation (and she likes it that way). I won't reveal it in this review, but Kym did something unthinkable years ago that had pretty devastating effects on the family.
Demme's direction take you right into the thick of the wedding planning, the wedding itself and the family turmoil that ensues. The premise is not a particularly interesting or original one. In fact, to the a mere passerby, it may bear some striking similarities (only on the surface mind you) to 2007's very different and very inferior Margot at the Wedding. Two sisters fighting and bringing up past family woes on the eve of a wedding. "Oh nacht mare." Does Jenny Lumet do everything right that Noah Baumbach did wrong? It may not be that simple. But the freshman writer (and daughter of director Sidney Lumet) definitely has a better handle on creating fully formed, flesh-and-blood characters that don't feel like caricatures. It's a very common trend in films about dysfunctional families to create cut-and-paste archetypes that feel overused and stale. In Rachel Getting Married, you believe every word that comes out of these characters's mouths. Nothing is gimmick. It all feels real and incredibly heartwrenching.
This film addresses and doesn't address an issue I've noticed afoot in typical "dark comedies." That they are devoid of African-American characters who are allowed to be as intelligent or witty or even as complicatedly messed up as their white counterparts. Here there are fully-formed, believable, intelligent African-American characters (Rachel's betrothed is black) who are there and who don't wear their race on their sleeves like another character (are you listening Tyler Perry?) Anna Deavere Smith (one of my favorite character actresses) in particular is a great presence in this film.
Every actor seems to be at the top of their game here in this very impressive ensemble. Bill Irwin as Kym and Rachel's father Paul is as warm and inviting as he is sorrowful. Rosemarie DeWitt turns in a very impressive supporting turn as Rachel. She understands the character from head to toe. Every gesture, every word. She knows exactly why Rachel both loves and is annoyed by Kym. Debra Winger doesn't clock much screentime here, but she too is in top form (as always. Please come back to us). There is a particularly heartbreaking scene between Kym and Abby that allows Winger to showcase a possible Oscar clip. But a quieter, more subtle moment towards the end of the film between Abby and both of her daughters truly shows Winger's handle on the material. And finally, Ms. Hathaway. Anne Hathaway navigates the acid-tongued harshness of Kym, making her one of the most fully realized characterizations of the year. I recall a scene in which Kym is in a support group meeting and reveals the tragedy that disjointed her from her family. Hathaway never missteps, never makes the scene maudlin and never gets it wrong. She's all but assured an Oscar nomination. It angers me that Hathaway will likely be put into the "Comedy or Musical" category at the Golden Globes where she is likely to be nominated (and win, unless something very big happens in the next few months). There are funny moments in Rachel Getting Married. But this is not a comedy. It is a portrait of a celebrating, but ultimately very lingeringly sad family who happen to be intelligent and happen to say witty things. Make no mistake. Rachel Getting Married is absolutely lovely. I don't know if it will get nominated for Best Picture. It doesn't feel...big enough in the ways that a lot of best picture nominees have to be big to get nominated. Unless the Academy has a sudden bout of impeccable taste, don't be surprised if Rachel Getting Married doesn't end up on the shortlist. It deserves to be there. But if this film shows us anything, it's that life isn't always fair and for no good reason at all.