'Rachel Getting Married': Demme's Masterpiece

It's not often you hear the word "masterpiece" coming from a film critic. But David Edelstein says it applies to Jonathan Demme's newest film, a marvelously textured thing at once focused and bursting at the seams.

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DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

In the past decade, director Jonathan Demme, who won an Oscar for "The Silence of the Lambs," has concentrated on documentaries and concert films. His newest movie is a fictional film made with documentary techniques, featuring a hand-held camera and improvisation with a large ensemble. "Rachel Getting Married" stars Anne Hathaway and opens this week in limited release. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: In "Rachel Getting Married," Kym, played by Anne Hathaway, returns to her family's Connecticut house for her sister Rachel's wedding after nine months in rehab and promptly makes herself the center of attention. At the rehearsal dinner, she rises to toast to her sister, and we know from her first wayward sentences she's going to make a fool of herself. It's a familiar setup in movies and on TV these days, the exhibitionist opens his or her mouth, embarrassing confessions leap out, and the camera takes in the wreckage while we squirm or snicker or both. That's what happened in another recent marriage movie, Noah Baumbach's "Margot at the Wedding," in which nearly every encounter was engineered to make us cringe at the character's monstrous egotism.

But in this film, something unusual happens. As Kym babbles away about her 12-step program, we start to feel emotions other than discomfort. For director Jonathan Demme and first time screenwriter Jenny Lumet, Kym's humiliation isn't an end in itself. We go through it with her and come out the other side and feel for this unstable child-woman who longs to make things right but never can. There's a sense of loss in every frame of "Rachel Getting Married." It comes from a past family tragedy that's only gradually revealed.

But countering that is the movie's overflowing energy and bustle and all the wonderful performers acting their hearts out. Among them is Hathaway, who's amazingly vivid. A former teen TV star, she has a habit of telegraphing her character's emotions. But this time, her mannerisms fit. Kym was a teen model, too, and it makes sense she'd draw attention to herself by pulling faces. And what a face Hathaway has to pull - the dark eyes, the heavy mouth, the teeth like bowling pins. Kym's mood swings prompt her anxious father, played by the superb Bill Irwin, to rush in and coddle her. She's impossible to ignore. Rachel is played by Rosemarie DeWitt in her 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 stands up to her sister, we like her better.

(Soundbite of movie "Rachel Getting Married")

Ms. ROSEMARIE DEWITT: (As Rachel) She's forgotten she even referenced the boundaries that even though I actually know what I'm talking about.

Ms. ANNE HATHAWAY: (As Kym) By the way, I'm not in crisis. I haven't been in crisis in a year.

Ms. DEWITT: (As Rachel) You just got out of rehab.

Ms. HATHAWAY: (As Kym) My God, why is this so difficult for you to understand? Rehabilitation. Crisis. You should really learn the difference. No, it's like - it's like you're not happy unless I'm in some kind of a desperate situation. You had no idea what to do with me unless I'm in crisis.

Ms. DEWITT: (As Rachel) You know, you are so much more involved in your suffering.

Ms. HATHAWAY: (As Kym) I'm not - who is talking about that?

Ms. DEWITT: (As Rachel) Your suffering is not the most important thing to everybody.

Ms. HATHAWAY: (As Kym) Who said it is?

Ms. DEWITT: (As Rachel) I have a life. I'm in school. I'm getting married. I'm...

Ms. HATHAWAY: (As Kym) What?

Ms. DEWITT: (As Rachel) I'm pregnant.

(Soundbite of woman screaming)

Mr. BILL IRWIN: (As Paul) You got pregnant? You are pregnant now?

Mr. MATHER ZICKEL: (As Kieran) Are you sure?

Ms. HATHAWAY: (As Kym) Oh, my God.

Mr. IRWIN: (As Paul) Oh, my God.

(Soundbite of people laughing and screaming)

Ms. DEWITT: (As Rachel) I know, I know, I know.

Mr. ZICKEL: (As Kieran) Are you OK?

Ms. HATHAWAY: (As Kym) That is so unfair.

EDELSTEIN: That is so unfair, Kym says, when Rachel plays that trump card, and the line is so pure in its child-like self-centeredness that it could be a speech balloon in a "Peanuts" cartoon strip.

Demme creates an overlapping texture that evokes the late Robert Altman's films, at once focused and bursting at the seams. And this family drama unfolds in a larger extended family in which racial and cultural barriers have dissolved. The father's second wife, played by Anna Deavere Smith, is African American, and so is Rachel's fiance, Tunde Adebimpe, the lead singer of the band "TV on the Radio."

Late in the film, there's a lengthy musical sequence featuring world musicians as well as Robin Hitchcock and Sister Carol East. I've heard people say that sequence is self-indulgent. It's indulgent, true, but the self has nothing to do with it. Shakespeare's comedies end with songs and dances, and Demme must have felt he needed the celebratory communal interlude to offset the central story, which is bleak and ragged and unfinished.

Debra Winger plays Kym and Rachel's mother, Abby, and when we see her again on screen, it's hard not to smile. She's family. But Abby turns out to be painfully limited, and with Winger on the role, we feel Kym's disappointment acutely. I don't mean Winger is disappointing. The performance is stunning with its layer of maternal warmth over a layer of fear. I mean, when Winger's face hardens and becomes mask-like, it evokes feelings we've all had when people we love didn't rise to comfort us. I don't think I've seen a movie with this mixture of desolation and fullness. "Rachel Getting Married" is a masterpiece.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

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'Rachel Getting Married': Wedding Movie Bliss

Anne Hathaway looks melancholy i i

Trouble in mind: With 10 years of rehab battles behind her, Kym (Anne Hathaway) faces a family wedding with something less than equanimity. Bob Vergara/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Bob Vergara/Sony Pictures Classics
Anne Hathaway looks melancholy

Trouble in mind: With 10 years of rehab battles behind her, Kym (Anne Hathaway) faces a family wedding with something less than equanimity.

Bob Vergara/Sony Pictures Classics

Rachel Getting Married

  • Director: Jonathan Demme
  • Genre: Drama, Romance
  • Running Time: 114 minutes

Rated R for language and brief sexuality

One big happy family i i

Family affair: Anne Hathaway (from left), Tunde Adebimpe, Rosemarie DeWitt and Mather Zickel Bob Vergara/Sony Pictures Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Bob Vergara/Sony Pictures Classics
One big happy family

Family affair: Anne Hathaway (from left), Tunde Adebimpe, Rosemarie DeWitt and Mather Zickel

Bob Vergara/Sony Pictures Classics

Weddings have been the subject of literally hundreds of movies. After all, they create the kind of emotional wallop that the best films thrive on.

Rachel Getting Married, the new wedding dramedy from Oscar winner Jonathan Demme, marks a gratifying return to the director's independent-film roots. And for actress Anne Hathaway, of all people, it's a career-changing performance.

Hathaway, best known for movies like The Princess Diaries, plays Kym, an ultratroubled young woman released from rehab for her sister's wedding. Even though Kym has trouble recognizing where her own needs end and other people's boundaries begin, she gets to make a toast at the rehearsal dinner.

The result is both empathetic and outrageous: "Hello," she says; "I'm Shiva the Destroyer and your harbinger of doom for the evening. ... I haven't seen most of you since my latest stretch in the big house. But you all look fabulous."

Everyone's been to weddings like the one in this picture — weddings where unresolved issues ignite in front of your eyes — and screenwriter Jenny Lumet captures the unmistakable texture of this kind of reality. The film's characters become people we care about, people we hope have the ability to navigate the shoals of family entanglements.

And Rachel Getting Married dares to mix the bitter with the sweet; it understands that life-altering situations like weddings bring out the worst in human behavior, along with the finest.

All kinds of tunes — most memorably an a cappella version of Neil Young's "Unknown Legend" — run through this film like a river, flooding it with joy at the moments it needs it most. If Kym's toast jolts us with its surprising bitterness, that song, sung by the groom as part of the wedding ceremony, lifts us up with its unexpected affirmation.

Because it's willing to take those kinds of chances, Rachel Getting Married could have gone off the rails in any number of ways. It doesn't, because Demme's firm but unobtrusive hand gives us the kind of emotionally honest moments that big-studio money can't buy.

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