Early in Jonathan Demme’s heartrending Rachel Getting Married, fresh-out-of-rehab Kym (Anne Hathaway) rises to toast her older sister, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), at the rehearsal dinner, and we know from her first wayward sentences that she’s going to make a fool of herself. It’s a familiar setup nowadays: The exhibitionist opens his or her mouth, toads leap out, and the camera takes in the wreckage, unblinking, while we squirm or snicker or both. In another recent nuptials film, Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding, nearly every encounter is engineered for us to cringe at the characters’ monstrous egotism. But as Kym babbles with forced good cheer about making amends and the AA Fourth Step (“Step … step-ball-change … still waiting for the change part!”) and the guests go stone-faced, something unusual happens. We start to feel emotions other than discomfort. For Demme and first-time screenwriter Jenny Lumet, Kym’s humiliation isn’t an end in itself. We stay with her through the embarrassment and come out the other side. And we see all at once that this unstable, self-centered child-woman longs to make things right, even if she doesn’t begin to know how—even if things can never be made right.
The opening isn’t promising—or, rather, the promise is the movie will be grueling. As Kym waits outside the rehab facility for her dad to drive her to her family’s Connecticut house, a spiteful patient hisses something about her having killed someone in a car; a few scenes later, at home, she gingerly opens the door of what’s clearly a little boy’s room and the bed is perfectly made and the toys too neatly in place. Uh-oh: another dead-kid movie. But Declan Quinn’s camera follows Kym into that room from an odd angle—down low, looking up instead of over her shoulder (as in a Gothic horror film). The obliqueness and tremulousness of the shot is a mercy. Demme is a father (his teenage son, Brooklyn, plays guitar in the onscreen wedding band), and he’s too sensitive—by which I mean both principled and vulnerable—to turn the dead-child device into a dramaturgical striptease. The tragedy is always there—the movie fairly shivers with a sense of loss. But there are so many countervailing currents that it never becomes a dirge. It’s messy and alive, teeming with wonderful performers acting their hearts out.
That includes Hathaway, who is stunningly vivid. She has a habit of telegraphing her characters’ emotions, but this time her mannerisms are in sync with the role. Kym is a former child model whose mood swings prompt her anxious father, Paul (the superb Bill Irwin), to rush in and coddle her; it makes sense for the character to draw attention to herself by pulling faces. And, really, what a face to pull. The dark eyes, the heavy mouth, the teeth like bowling pins: Everything but the tidy ski-slope nose is way oversize, as if her head never grew into her features. The bratty Kym is impossible to ignore, even when she’s only smoking and glowering. This is Rosemarie DeWitt’s first big movie role, and although she doesn’t resemble Hathaway, she meshes with her. Rachel is at long last fed up with being upstaged, and when she reacts to her sister, we react to (and like) her. In the midst of a public screaming match she’d ordinarily never win, Rachel pulls out a trump card—she announces she’s pregnant. As relatives clamor around, Kym cries, “That’s so unfair!” The line is so childishly pure in its resentment that it could be a speech balloon in a Peanuts strip.
In Demme’s last “personal” fiction film, The Truth About Charlie (I’m not counting his Manchurian Candidate remake), the overflowing humanism—multicultural musicians everywhere you looked, and the camera made you look—overwhelmed the narrative. Demme was starting to seem fatuously humanistic. But in Rachel Getting Married, his generous impulses pay off. He creates a Robert Altman–like texture, hectic but focused. The 12-step meetings Kym attends don’t go on a beat too long—just long enough to register all the troubled, lived-in faces. This bleak family drama unfolds in a larger, extended family in which barriers have dissolved. Especially racial barriers: Paul’s second wife (Anna Deavere Smith) is African-American, and so is Rachel’s fiancé (Tunde Adebimpe, the lead singer of TV on the Radio). Late in the film, there’s a lengthy musical sequence featuring Arabic musicians who worked on Demme’s Jimmy Carter documentary, as well as past collaborators Robyn Hitchcock and Sister Carol East. I’ve heard people say Demme’s use of music is “self-indulgent.” Well, it’s indulgent, but the self has nothing to do with it. Shakespeare’s comedies end with songs and dances (which most directors cut). Demme must have felt he needed the celebratory communal interlude to offset the central story, which is bleak and ragged and unfinished.