Rachel Getting Married

November, 2008, Drama

Directed by:Jonathan Demme

Starring:Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Anna Deavere Smith, Tunde Adebimpe, and Debra Winger

` Rachael Getting Married

Jonathan Demme’s middle name should be Eclectic; this 64 year old director has done everything from early career exploitation flicks (Caged Heat, Crazy Mama) to mainstream commercial dramas (Philadelphia, Silence of the Lambs) to dreadful remakes of Hollywood classics (The Truth About Charlie, The Manchurian Candidate) with a smattering of documentaries (The Agronomist) thrown in for good measure. In Rachael, Demme employs the seemingly candid visual techniques of cinema verite to explore an extended (and often dysfunctional) family gathered to celebrate the marriage of their oldest daughter Rachael, played by Rosemarie DeWitt. Over the wedding weekend, enough family scabs and secrets will be reopened to fill an entire season of primetime domestic drama, but despite a bountiful supply of pretentious clichés, Rachael delivers a frequently incisive portrait of contemporary urban left-wing culture as it’s lived in the upscale neighborhoods of suburban Connecticut. The results don’t make for incisive drama but they do work as impressive soap opera.

The fly in the bride’s nuptial ointment turns out to be her younger sister Kym, (Anne Hathaway) who’s released in the film’s opening scene from a substance-abuse treatment center for the weekend so she can be part of the festivities along with the girls’ twice-married father Paul (Bill Irwin) and their step-mother. But the happy affair is a missing member of the family who’ll dominate these proceedings and provide the underlying catalyst for intra-family confrontations.

Masking her self-conscious vulnerability behind a sneering line of rapid-fire chatter and sporting a nicotine habit worthy of attention by the Surgeon General, Kym manages over the course of her short stay at home to hit a few AA meetings, send the long-suffering bride into near-murderous rage, assault her mother, (stunningly portrayed by the long-absent Debra Winger) and drive her father’s Mercedes into a tree, producing a gorgeous shiner which Kym proudly bears through the wedding ceremony and the nearly endless reception which follows. Following a morning-after reconciliation with her newly married sister, it’s back to rehab, a few days older and perhaps a bit wiser…

If Rachael’s content never rises above predictable shallowness, it more than makes up for it with sharply observed dialogue and solid performances from many in the cast. Freshman screenwriter Jenny Lumet (daughter of Sidney) blends casual familial chatter with awkward pauses and blunted self-revelations to produce a  fluid screenplay that provides her clichéd storyline with more freshness and complexity than it deserves. The principals manage to compliment the film’s rich dialogue with just the right amount of nuance to keep them fresh. Hathaway, best known for her doe-like eyes, cherubic smile, (The Princess Diaries 1 & 2) and the ability to look smashing in designer cloths (The Devil Wears Prada) gets a career-expanding opportunity here to shed her Miss Goody Two Shoes image, portraying Kym as a self-absorbed pain in the ass possessed of the ability to bring an otherwise convivial gathering to a screeching halt with her needy self-absorption. The actress looks physically hollowed out for the occasion and manages her profanity-laden lines with the aplomb of someone born to utter them.

While Hathaway has garnered most of the favorable publicity since the movie’s release, DeWitt more than holds her own as the put-upon sibling who’s tired of the time and energy being spent on her younger sister’s problems. As their father, Bill Irwin radiates uneasy equanimity; he’s so anxious to please he’s a walking punching bag for the alpha females who surround him. Grinning wildly, fluttering about his guests with repeated offers of food and wearing his patience with Kym as a badge of honor, Paul personifies the soft-centered, non-judgmental, value-neutral type of male that right-wing meat-eaters like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly feast on when denigrating the political left. 

The bridegroom and his family are African American and the wedding guests represent a level of ethnic and cultural variety rarely found anywhere outside the general assembly of the U.N. It’s one of the plot’s many conceits, (and the director’s none too-subtle message) that music somehow unites these disparate individuals; the film’s soundtrack is replete with examples of the world’s contributions to that art form and when the bridesmaids show up for the wedding dressed inexplicitly in Indian saris, Demme’s paean to the need for peace, (familial and global) through better understanding and mutual acceptance is brought to a peak of Kumbaya perfection.

Even if audiences take the sincerity of this tale at face value, it’s hard not to note some rather jarring disparities between its ostensible message of forgiveness/inclusiveness and the unspoken elements which undercut it; while much is made of the bride’s color-blind choice of spouse and her family’s warm embrace of this multi-racial marriage, not a single one of Rachael’s black characters rises above the stereotypical - - their function simply provides verification of a lack of racial prejudice on the part of the film’s white characters. The film also grounds Kym’s substance abuse in her role she played in a family tragedy revealed late in the storyline, nearly absolving this self-centered young woman of personal responsibility for her own problems.  

Does Demme take this material at face value, or is he jiving the audience with a retro look at familial dramas like Ordinary People? His hand-held camera work and the casual lighting of the movie’s interior scenes suggest he’s trying for beady-eyed realism, but behind these artfully-contrived techniques lies a core of pure melodramatic mush - - delivered, one is forced to admit, with a good deal of slick professionalism.

The verdict? A post-modern weeper with more than style than substance.

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