If a humanist tries to make sense of the world using reason, experience and shared feelings, then director Jonathan Demme is that guy. His best films, including Melvin and Howard, Citizen’s Band, Something Wild, Philadelphia, the unfairly maligned Beloved and the Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs, show unsappy compassion for the fragility of flesh and spirit. Human weakness is at the core of Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, a loose, lively, unhurried and unmissable gem that refuses to sink in the mud of multiplex cynicism. Brimming with stinging laughs and tears, and swirling, healing music (a Demme specialty), the film holds you spellbound. Props to the funny, touching and vital script by Jenny Lumet (daughter of the great director Sidney Lumet and granddaughter of the trailblazing singer Lena Horne) that allows characters to charm and sometimes bully us into recognition.
Get ready for Anne Hathaway, dropping the pretty decorations of The Princess Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada to reinvent herself as an actress with real dramatic chops. She’s raw and riveting as Kym, a long drink of trouble fresh out of rehab to attend the wedding of her sister Rachel (the superb Rosemarie DeWitt). If you know rehab, you know the main thing is to avoid triggers that might rekindle your dependency on alcohol, drugs, sex, you name it. Sky-high on Kym’s trigger list are home and family, and yet here she is in the thick of both. She greets the sister she hasn’t seen in nearly a year by asking if she’s been “puking” to lose weight: “You look Asian.”
Then there’s Kym’s toast at the rehearsal dinner: “I am Shiva the Destroyer and your harbinger of doom for this evening.” She’s only half-joking. Kym’s father, Paul (a heartfelt Bill Irwin), and her aloof mother, Abby (Debra Winger), both remarried, expect disaster. Ditto Rachel, about to wed black music producer Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe). Kym has already snuck off for an AA meeting and a quickie with the recovering best man (Mather Zickel). In every familiar room and fixed smile, Kym is triggered by the memory of a family tragedy for which she can’t forgive herself.
In lesser hands than Demme’s, this material might veer off into soap opera or, worse, exploitation. Rachel Getting Married might have cut even deeper without the cataclysmic event from the past. As Declan Quinn’s high-def camera weaves around the reception, it’s clear that this family has a long history of inflicting emotional wounds. Expect comparisons to Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding and Robert Altman’s A Wedding, but Demme lacks their readiness to go for the jugular. Demme doesn’t sell hope, but he’s not hawking despair, either. As the musicians play — watch for percussionist Zafer Tawil and Demme regulars Robyn Hitchcock and Sister Carol — restorative harmony makes a case against the darkness.
The acting is of the highest caliber. Winger, magnificent and too long between films, is a volcano of repressed anger. Her explosion at Kym is a thing of bruised beauty and terror. And Hathaway will surely have Oscar calling. Quicksilver feelings play exquisitely on her haunted face. Her clown’s smile, evident in a comic trip to a hair salon and a dishwasher-loading contest, drops like a mask when the past intrudes and attacks. It’s a great bear of a role, and Hathaway acts the hell out of it, achieving a state of sorrowful grace. Demme calls Rachel Getting Married a “home movie.” A home run is more like it, going deep into the joy and pain of being human.