Combustible Celluloid
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With: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mather Zickel, Bill Irwin, Anna Deavere Smith, Anisa George, Tunde Adebimpe, Debra Winger, Jerome Le Page, Beau Sia, Dorian Missick, Kyrah Julian, Carol-Jean Lewis, Herreast Harrison, Gonzales Joseph, Robyn Hitchcock, Roger Corman
Written by: Jenny Lumet
Directed by: Jonathan Demme
MPAA Rating: R for language and brief sexuality
Running Time: 113
Date: 09/03/2008

Rachel Getting Married (2008)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Wedding Stress

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Jonathan Demme will probably be forever known as the guy who directed The Silence of the Lambs (1991), though his filmography is now far heavier with documentaries and music films than with fictional horrors. Nevertheless, the heroine of his new film Rachel Getting Married, Kym (Anne Hathaway), is as tormented by intangible demons as Jodie Foster was tormented by tangible ones. And it's an equally mesmerizing, Oscar-worthy performance.

Echoing last year's dud Margot at the Wedding, but quickly rising above it, Rachel Getting Married also wanders into "mumblecore" territory, in that its events sound more frighteningly, queasily realistic than usual; these people seem to be speaking and living rather than acting. This could be a real wedding video, complete with heartfelt, awkward speeches. But Demme's ultimate triumph is that he gets beyond the reality show camp factor of a disastrous family get-together and focuses on the beautiful flower of one woman's fragile soul.

Kym gets out of rehab on the eve of her sister's wedding, and arrives home, sure that she's going to be the center of attention. But lo and behold, sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) is actually in the spotlight. Thanks to Hathaway's canny performance, we understand her deep, damaged need for adoration and we empathize with her rather than despise her. Thus Rachel and Kym go round and round, alternately expressing their love and their frustration with one another. In one scene, Kym and Rachel are in the middle of a blowout when Rachel suddenly announces that she's pregnant. Kym is horrified; "that's not fair!" she shouts. Yes, she's happy for Rachel, but they were on the verge of perhaps working something out together (and the attention has suddenly shifted, leaving her stranded). This is shocking behavior, of course, but it comes from somewhere profoundly hurt and tender.

Kym's father (beautifully played by stage clown Bill Irwin, of all people!) dotes on her and does everything he can to boost her spirits, including constant offers of food. But even he is reluctant to let her borrow the family car, since she was responsible for the death of her little brother when she was sixteen, a brand-new driver and high as a kite. Kym tries to seek solace in her mother (a terrific Debra Winger), who has split from the family and re-married, but receives exactly the wrong kind of response.

The screenplay by first-time writer Jenny Lumet -- the daughter of Sidney and a former actress -- relies on a few weary chestnuts, like Kym meeting a boy at an addict's meeting, Kieran (Mather Zickel), who then turns out to be the best man! But thankfully, the film freewheels enough that such plot turns are softened and become inconsequential.

I can't say enough good things about Hathaway here; she gives a meaty, ironic delivery not unlike Ellen Page's in Juno, but with far more depth and real sadness. I thought I heard someone speak a throwaway line about Kym's former career as a model, which makes sense. Kym now wears her stunning beauty like a shield, smoking, wearing black boots and complaining that "rehab makes you fat."

Demme uses several real-life musicians in the cast, and they provide the diegetic score. He also employs hand-held cameras, but uses them correctly (whereas 99% of current movies use them to simulate chaos by creating actual chaos). Demme weaves in and around all these characters, looking at them curiously and warmly, and they become like real family and friends. No actor feels wasted, not even someone like Anna Deavere Smith, who plays Kym's stepmom and only gets a few lines. Like everyone else here, she feels present. Even Roger Corman (Demme's former boss) turns up in one shot, filming the wedding proceedings. Sure, he's a great and famous filmmaker, but here he could be someone's uncle.

Rachel Getting Married is simple, but precariously, emotionally complex. I find myself wanting to describe emotions that I was sure I saw Kym feeling, but which have no physical evidence in the film itself. It's a superb achievement, and Demme's best foray into fiction since the aforementioned Silence of the Lambs.

Sony Pictures Classics has released a worthy DVD of this outstanding film. It comes with two commentary tracks, although -- oddly -- neither of them feature Demme or Hathaway. The first one is by screenwriter Lumet, producer Neda Armian and editor Tim Squyres. Then actress Rosemarie DeWitt gets a second track. After that, we get a pretty standard 15-minute making-of featurette (with Demme and Hathaway in attendance), an onstage cast and crew Q&A, a neat little short feature about the wedding band, deleted scenes, and trailers.

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