Jonathan Demme’s movies are at their best when they capture the messiness of ordinary life. Rachel Getting Married succeeds brilliantly in doing just that. This is the best movie Demme has made in years. He sets the story during the celebration of a family wedding and unveils the joys and sorrows typical of families that often occur at such a major event.
Anne Hathaway, in a major departure from her virtuous Princess Diaries role, is Kym, a young woman leaving drug rehab to attend her sister Rachel’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) wedding. She is greeted by her affectionate father (Bill Irwin) and gradually is reunited with her family who is busy with preparations for the wedding. The screenplay by Jenny Lumet, daughter of Sidney Lumet, does a masterful job of teasing us with revelations of friction in the relationship of this family because of Kym’s drug abuse. Early on we are introduced to a family tragedy. The family son was killed and we discover hints that Kym might have been responsible. The resolution is delayed until the resentments that have been building climax with a heated argument between the sisters.
Early on there is a dinner for family and friends to celebrate the wedding. Guests take turns giving speeches about the future newlyweds. These scenarios have so much authenticity that it feels non-scripted. There is the use of overlapping dialogue, in the manner of Robert Altman, in these early scenes that is so natural you have the impression of life being captured as it happened. Kym gives a speech where she pours out her feelings about going through rehab. It’s an honest, revealing moment where you want to lower your head in embarrassment before Kym redeems herself. After dinner there is a confrontation at the house between the sisters filmed using natural lighting that is emotionally affecting. Declan Quinn shot the movie often using a handheld camera and available light to create the effect of a home movie. The result is that Rachel Getting Married has an intimacy that most movies lack.
Demme does a superb job of letting scenes play out. There is a very funny segment when Rachel’s husband, Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), and father engage in a contest where they try to outdo each other to see who can load dishes in the dishwasher faster. In lesser hands this is the kind of scene that would be cut out as being unimportant in advancing the plot. Demme recognizes that the scene is significant because it is the kind of unique family moment that we all experience. It’s a family ritual and we share in their togetherness. At the conclusion of Rachel Getting Married, the wedding occurs and we get to participate in the joyful celebration. Again, Demme goes the unconventional route by showing us less of the ceremony and more of the party afterwards. We watch uninterrupted as the family dances to the music. Throughout his career, music has been a major part of Demme’s movies and he uses past collaborators like Sister Carol East and his son Brooklyn to perform musical numbers live as part of the ambience.
The casting is terrific. Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt are exceptional at making us believe they are really sisters. They play off each other beautifully in a way that feels improvised. There is a scene early on when they are talking to a friend while lying in bed and they interrupt each other and finish one another’s thoughts in a manner that only family members could do. Hathaway has the showier part but she doesn’t overdo the melodrama. DeWitt is lovely especially when she confronts her sister’s selfishness and confides in the loneliness she felt because of Kym’s actions. Having the great Debra Winger as the mother was a brilliant stroke of casting. Even in her smaller role she is still vivid in a way few actresses are.
Rachel Getting Married has moments that are so painfully honest we want to look away and others that make us smile in recognition at this celebration of life. It is a beautiful movie.