The plot is simple yet multi-layered. Kym (Hathaway) is let out of rehab for the weekend in order to attend her sister’s wedding. Her sister, Rachel (DeWitt), is getting married to an African-American musician named Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe). Kym and Rachel’s divorced father, Paul (Bill Irwin), is hosting the wedding at his house, along with his second wife Carol (Anna Deavere Smith). Their mother, Abby (Debra Winger, forceful in her few scenes), makes a fleeting but integral appearance at the ceremony/reception. Various bands are performing at the wedding and are seen practicing all throughout the film in the background. Eschewing a traditional musical score, Demme allows the music of the bands to amplify many scenes in a very unique way. The film has a straight-forward narrative that is powered by an intense family dynamic created by the wonderful and totally committed cast. Often times feeling like it could have been a play before becoming a feature, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED has been given a lived-in authenticity which heightens every single moment of the film.
The acting is truly exceptional. Hathaway, who before this has never done anything for me as an actress, delivers a tour de force of a performance. Kym is damaged goods; you know it right from the beginning. With her cigarettes dangling from her lips and her skittish attitude, she’s exactly the kind of unpredictable woman that trouble always seems to find. In rehab to kick various addictions, which ultimately played a part in the death of her young brother years ago, Hathaway channels something inside of her that she’s never been asked to find before as an actress: Soul. She’s been an empty vessel of moderate good-looks in studio crap like GET SMART and THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, and while she was a solid supporting presence in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, that film belonged to Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. In RACHEL GETTING MARRIED, Hathaway gets her first chance to prove that she’s a real talent. And she owns the screen. There are a few scenes in the film that are almost too hard to watch; Kym has a few meltdowns that seem painfully real yet never cliché or over-the-top. And wait until you hear her toast at the rehearsal dinner – it’s a doozy. Characters like Kym are tricky because they are inherently unlikable; it’s a testament to Hathaway’s abilities that you end up really caring about her. You want to help her even if she is well beyond help.
DeWitt, in a possibly trickier role, has to play the “good” sister to Hathaway’s “bad” sister. Allowing a role like this to become one-note was a real possibility. It’s the way in which DeWitt humanizes Rachel that the audience feels compelled to root for her. Rachel is like most brides; it’s her wedding and she wants everything to go perfect. She doesn’t want Kym stealing the spotlight and there is a real sense, especially in her earlier scenes, that Rachel is deeply disappointed with Kym for a variety of reasons. She’s critical yet sympathetic to her damaged sister, and on more than once occasion, DeWitt elicits a genuine sisterly bond with Hathaway that feels totally real and right. They are women who were brought up in an upper middle class household, given whatever they wanted, and raised by parents who loved them. Regardless of the drama that has been injected into their lives, Rachel and Kym are joined at the hip in many respects. Whether or not Rachel wants to accept that fact is another story. DeWitt brings a level of sophistication and confidence to the role of Rachel which plays off of Kym’s weariness and open hostility. It’s a supporting performance that has all of the ear-marks of an awards contender.
But the film’s most heartbreaking performance, in my eyes, belongs to Irwin, as the beleaguered patriarch. In a tireless performance, Irwin has to be up one moment, down the next, and always ready for something new and potentially earth-shaking to occur. Paul has to be best friends to both of his very different daughters, something I am sure real-life fathers have to do on a daily basis. Without ever letting Kym or Rachel feel like he’s taking sides, he has to play both of them throughout the entire film, waiting for the other shoe to drop. And not only does he have two emotionally demanding daughters to deal with, he’s got to contend with the presence of his bitter ex-wife while still dealing with the death of his son, something that he clearly still dwells on. There is a scene I will simply call the “dishwashing scene” which ranks as my favorite scene of any film this year. In its quiet power, you get a sense of who Paul is as a man, and through Irwin’s delicate performance, you grow to really love him as a person. It will be a crime if Irwin isn’t saluted by the Academy with a supporting actor nomination. In a film filled with perfect performances, his was my favorite.
Demme has had an eclectic career, to say the least. In the 80’s he shot to stardom with off-beat comedies like SWING SHIFT, SOMETHING WILD, and MARRIED TO THE MOB. He then won an Oscar for his brilliant direction of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS in 1991, which is one of the best American movies of the last 30 years. He followed that film up with PHILADELPHIA, another critical and box office success. Then came a run of disappointments; BELOVED was ill-conceived and THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE was an extremely stylish but hollow re-make of Stanley Donen’s masterwork CHARADE. He then rebounded with his criminally underrated MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE remake before directing two documentaries (NEIL YOUNG: HEART OF GOLD and JIMMY CARTER: MAN FROM PLAINS). A filmmaker turned on by music (he’s made numerous docs revolving around various musical groups throughout his career) and the power of rhythm, Demme has always had a firm grasp of controlled style, which he abandons in RACHEL GETTING MARRIED. There is a purposefully sloppy and off-the-cuff visual style in RACHEL GETTING MARRIED. Cinematographer Quinn, who has worked with filmmaker Jim Sheridan on a few occasions, shoots from skewed angles, always with a jerky, hand-held camera, which creates a feeling of cinema-verite immediacy that pumps the film up with raw edge. It’s like a Dogme film in many ways; no extra music, no artificial lighting, no special effects. Just honest to goodness emotions and pathos.
RACHEL GETTING MARRIED stands as one of the year’s best films for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is its power to hold the audience riveted by its use of words and narrative force. Lumet’s script has a distinct New England ear which informs it with a sense of authenticity that it might otherwise have had to poorly imitate. Lumet’s characters, no matter how sad, mean, or conflicted that they may be, all have the ability to generate sympathy and empathy, a task not often achieved by the writer. If the film feels New Wave-y, well, it does so for a reason; Demme and Lumet are interested in what’s happening in the moment for their characters. They aren’t distracted by artifice and pretension. This is the wedding film to end all wedding films. Lumet has stated that she was inspired by Robert Altman’s 1978 film A WEDDING while writing her screenplay. Emulating Altman isn’t the worst thing to attempt, and with RACHEL GETTING MARRIED, Lumet has crafted a poignant and deeply personal work of art. It’s a small masterpiece for all involved.