There should be more movies like Rachel Getting Married. Director Jonathan Demme has put something memorable and unique on film through a collaborative effort involving actors, musicians, editors, technicians, and a great all-around cast and crew.
The film, from a fine script by Jenny Lumet, centers upon a Connecticut family preparing for the wedding of their daughter, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). The stress of the wedding weekend is intensified by the return of Rachel's sister Kym (Anne Hathaway) from rehab. Kym's issues threaten to steal the focus from Rachel's marriage to Sidney (TV on the Radio singer Tunde Adebimpe), as the family is confronted by unresolved conflicts from the past and new problems that arise when Kym clashes with Rachel and her family.
Anne Hathaway's performance as recovering addict and problem child Kym was singled out for praise by the critics, and it's easy to see why. She approaches the role with such ease and sincerity that you quickly get lost in her conflicted world of guilt and blame, of egotism and self-destruction.
However, the film is not simply a vehicle for Anne Hathaway. It's hard for me to see why she alone was singled out for praise in the midst of an excellent and well-balanced ensemble cast. Demme brings a calculated sense of naturalism to each scene, and the actors respond brilliantly by truly interacting with each other and creating a realistic world. Demme films in a documentary style that brings an extra level of truth to what you are seeing. You honestly feel as if you've been given a privileged window into this family's life.
The film is anchored by Kym's relationship with her family, most importantly with her sister Rachel. Rosemarie DeWitt does a brilliant job of establishing her character and her relationship with her family. She digs into her character's nuance, never making the broad choice to be "the good sister" or the "responsible one" but inhabiting a more realistic Rachel who has her own set of inner conflicts. It's unfortunate that DeWitt wasn't given the praise and recognition that Hathaway received.
But then the same could be said for the rest of the ensemble. Stage veterans Bill Irwin and Anna Deavere Smith play Rachel's father and step-mother, respectively. Smith is a strong, steady presence as the girls' distant stepmother, but Irwin nearly steals the movie. Better known on film for his broad comic talent, Irwin gives Rachel's father a human face as a man seeking control of a world gone haywire.
The wild card in the family is Rachel and Kym's mother Abby, played by Debra Winger. Lumet's script places Abby at a distance from the wedding, an uncomfortable fact that represents both the family's inability to deal with conflict and the ugly consequences of repressed emotion. Winger excels by bringing that sense of struggle with her in every scene.
Stuck in the middle of all this is Rachel's fiancee, Sidney, and his best man Kieran (Mather Zickel). One of the weaknesses of the film is that as Rachel's family deals with its own issues, Sidney is left literally just standing there. Despite his character's importance, the film gives us no idea of who Sidney is. He's a complete non-factor in the familial in-fighting, and while that may have been a deliberate choice, it instead leaves us with a character who gets as much screen-time as anyone while given almost nothing to do.
Best man Kieran is more entwined with the plot. As a fellow addict, he and Kym meet at a support group and become involved. And while he does come into the mix when the family argues, his relationship with Kym isn't really explored. The Deleted Scenes section of the DVD gives one reason why, as many of the scenes are between Kieran and Kym.
The impression that you've just been dropped into this film's world is very much by design. In the DVD's featurette, the cast reveals that during the scenes at the family house (where most of the film takes place), they were basically performing environmental theatre. The camera would follow the scene wherever it went, even bringing in outside elements. Demme brought in a group of New York-based musicians to play the groom's friends. They are almost always onscreen or just out of shot, providing real-time background music for each scene. It's a bold choice by Demme, but it pays off well and doesn't come off as being scripted.
However, the film does tend to get overly involved with the world surrounding the action rather than the action itself. We get to see every bit of the wedding and reception, even if all we're seeing is three different scenes of people dancing. While there are several moments of action taking place amongst the festivities, it seems to go on forever. It comprises a large chunk of the run-time toward the end of the film, which is unfortunate since the early part of the film is so well-paced and fraught with tension.
Still, by going through the entire process with this family, it breeds a sense of familiarity. The success of the film shows in how easy it is to see your own family's arguments and disputes in what is taking place. Many films try to show you super-realism with a convoluted structure or by cutting to a new shot every half-second. Rachel Getting Married does more with less; by creating the right environment and just letting his actors tell the story, Demme brings us into a story that we can relate to, with complex characters that defy simple categorization.
The result is more than just a dysfunctional family morality tale. It gives us something real and something to care about, without using any more cinematic bells and whistles than are necessary. And it's always nice to see a film like that. Even with its problems, you gain a special appreciation for it just the same.
As for the DVD release, it comes with an impressive bunch of special features. There are two full-length commentaries: one with producer Neda Armian, screenwriter Jenny Lumet, and editor Tim Squyers, and another with actress Rosemarie DeWitt. There are also three featurettes (including a cast and crew question-and-answer session) as well as several deleted scenes.
It may not have been the star of the awards season, but Rachel Getting Married is one of those underrated independent film that stays with you. It's well worth seeing.
Rated R for language and brief sexuality. View the trailer.