Rachel Getting Married

The first thing to be said about “Rachel Getting Married” is that Jonathan Demme is back in top form, after a decade of artistic and/or commercial failures, beginning with “Beloved” and continuing with “The Truth About Charlie,” and most recently The Manchurian Candidate.”

The second observation to be made is that Robert Altman  would be proud of Demme's achievement, an emotionally intense yet loosely structured family tale, centering on a big wedding and all the joys, sorrows, and anxieties that accompany this climactic event.

Acting-wise, with the exception of one role (played by comic Bill Irwin), the film is impressive, boasting a revelatory, Oscar-worthy turn from Anne Hathaway as the troubled, neurotic sister, in an out of rehab, who here gives her richest, most devastating performance to date. Also impressive is Rosemarie DeWitt in the titular role, one that should be remembered by the Academy voters at Oscar time.

Despite these compliments, it needs to be said that “Rachel Getting Married” is not a major film, perhaps because its central character is so self-absorbed and neurotic that it makes her unappealing, and also because a therapeutic sensibility that informs the whole tale.

Moreover, it's hard to be too overly optimistic about the commercial prospects of Demme's film in the current, cruel theatrical marketplace. After world-premiering at Venice Film Fest (in competition) and playing in Toronto and New York Film Fests, “Rachel Getting Married” will be released by Sony Classics October 3, appealing largely to the arthouse and indie crowds.

Thematically, the film belongs to the wedding genre, a type of film that many directors, American and foreign, have been intrigued by and contributed to, from Visconti's “The Leopard” through Michael Cimino's “The Deer Hunter,” Altman's “A Wedding,” Nancy Savoca indie hit “True Love,” Mira Nair's “Monsoon Wedding,” and most recently, Noah Baumbach's “Margot at the Wedding,” which also involved a dissection of the complex relationship between two vastly different sisters.

Based on a screenplay by Jenny Lumet (director Sidney Lumet's daughter), “Rachel Getting Married” spans one long and tense weekend, centering on the preparations for the big event, an interracial marriage between Rachel (Rosemary DeWitt) and Sidney who's African American. Every aspect of the production is marked by disregard for the rules of classic Hollywood cinema, an admirable lack of concern for screen characters that are sympathetic in the conventional sense of these terms.

Replete with many truthful observations, humor, and pain, all deriving directly from the saga's situations, the film is bold and open-ended, allowing its free-floating persona to exert their impact on the viewers' emotions in a non-manipulative way.

It's a testament to Demme's approach that, with the exception of the lead, splendidly played by Anne Hathaway in a non-characteristic performance, he has cast the other roles either with young and fresh talent, such as DeWitt, or with established actors, such as the great Debra Winger in a comeback part as Rachel’s detached mother.

When Kym (Hathaway) returns to the Buchman family home for the wedding of her sister Rachel (DeWitt), she brings a long history of personal crisis, family conflict and tragedy along with her. The marrying couple's friends and relations have gathered for a joyful weekend of feasting, music and love. Clearly an outsider, Kym, with her biting one-liners, self-absorption, and flair for melodrama, is a catalyst for long-simmering tensions in the family dynamics.

Filled with the rich, eclectic characters that are the hallmark of Demme's films, “Rachel Getting Married” paints a heartfelt, quite perceptive family portrait. Demme, first-time writer Lumet, and the large acting ensemble leaven the drama of difficult but compelling people with wry affection and generosity of spirit.

After years of collaborating with lenser Tak Fujimoto, Demme works with Declan Quinn (who also shot his documentary, “Jimmy Carter, Man from Plains,” but is better known for his work for Nair, including “Monsoon Wedding”). Together they are responsible for what could be described as “the most beautiful home movie ever made.” The characters are caught in the act, and most scenes are vividly conveyed, as if they were rendered by ordinary people holding a camera. In tone, the film is a serio comedy, punctuated by AA rehab meetings that Kym has attended (and will continue to attend). From the very first moments, it's clear that no member of the family has really absorbed the tragic death of the youngest brother, an event that continues to haunt the clan, particularly Kym who accepts full responsibility.

The documentary-like approach yields sharply observed moments. The lack of duplicated takes and established set-ups helps maintain the spontaneity factor alive from first frame to last. Demme's approach is most vividly demonstrated in the use of music. A group of musicians has created an evocative original music in the moment, liberating the movie from using the more traditional dramatic score composed during post-production.

As noted, the film departs from reliable and time-honored ideas about how to fashion a story and in an effort to move the audience. Yet unlike Baumbach's wedding picture, “Margot at the Wedding,” which included many good scenes but didn't add to much because the situations were mostly trivial, Demme's film has a cumulative emotional impact–it does add up to a coherent and substantial work.

The narrative is punctuated by strong dramatic moments. It takes about 10 minutes for the first such moment to occur, when Kym wanders down an upstairs hall and steps into a sunlit child's room. Violin music drifts up the stairs from the musicians practicing below. Kym looks around the room for a few seconds, and moves on. Nothing happens, but we register her observation and the moment is powerful.

This spontaneity–capturing unrehearsed the moody chemistry of Zafer Tawil's music composition, Declan Quinn's restless camera, and Hathaway's bereft gaze–serves as a guiding principle for the rest of the tale.

The characters are by turns, smart, edgy, irritating, and adorable. The viewers become immersed in the family melodramas and subplots, caring about each one of them. A terrible trauma still defines this family, and yet all hopes are hooked on the wish to have the most joyous and beautiful wedding.

Throughout, the movie explores both sides of the equation, the dark struggle and the celebration of love, family and friends. Long, loosely staged scenes play out accompanied by live music; documentary-style camerawork and editing tell the story; and actors mingle onscreen with musicians, and artists.

Demme lets reality happen in front of the cameras without trying to manipulate it too much. As lengthy scenes are played out from start to finish, Quinn and his crew prowls the family home with handheld cameras, capturing on the fly the characters' exchanges, speeches, big gestures, and small sidelong looks.

Paul (Bill Irwin) and ex-wife Abby (Winger) hardly exchange any dialogue, but they express their emotions without words, through gestures. Paul and Abby briefly embrace and then pull apart at the end of their daughter's wedding, offering another piercing moment.

Early on, there is an argument over who will serve as the bride's maid of honor: Emma (Anisa George), who was assigned the role, or Kym who demands it as her rightful duty. The wedding progresses through brief snapshots and leaps in time that make the tale engaging, though the wedding ceremony itself is a faux pas: Sidney sings a song about his vows, and Rachel responds with her own vows (which were not in the script), improvised by DeWitt.

Over the weekend, there are two different kinds of gatherings: people gathering to have fun at the wedding, and other people engaged in the struggle against addiction, trying to gain strength from that community on a parallel track. The action moves forward with few takes and as little obtrusive preparation as possible. The multi-nuanced scenario is well-modulated. There are intimate scenes, in which the main characters engage in gut-wrenching conversations and confessions. We get a concrete sense of the love-hate relationship between the two sisters, the divorced parents who are now newly married but still care for each other, the mutual accusations, the inability to understand why a young boy would be left with his drug-addict sister, the long recovery process of Kym, who later on causes her own car accident.

Hathaway, in what's easily the most challenging role of her career to date, gives a revelatory performance, conveying Kym's irritatingly compulsive need for honesty, her direct confrontations, mal-a-propos timing, constant struggle to stay clean and sober, above all, her fight to be considered a legit member of a family that had almost banished her.

Every element is more orchestrated than pre-arranged. The movie's big set pieces, such as the rehearsal dinner, the wedding, and the reception dance party, are populated with Demme's friends, family, colleagues. The unrehearsed, improvisational shooting style suits the story's emotional high voltage. During the long wedding party scenes, Gonzales Joseph, who plays Sidney's cousin in uniform, is always seen with a small prosumer camera. Indie filmmaker Jimmy Joe Roche is the official wedding videographer, and two of the digicam-wielding guests are Demme's mentor Roger Corman and vet cinematographer Charlie Libin.

Like the free-form shooting style, the music is an integral element played out with freedom. Since Sidney is a record producer, it makes sense that many of his friends will be musicians, and that there will be nonstop music at this gathering. Thus, music is playing live throughout the weekend, but always in the next room, out on the porch or in the garden.

Among the musicians, dancers, and performers whom Demme enlisted are jazz artists Donald Harrison, Jr. and Palestinian virtuoso Zafer Tawil, who contributed original themes and are credited as composers. (They also brought along accompanists: Harrison's Grammy-nominated nephew Christian Scott shows up to jam at the reception, and Tawil is joined by an ensemble of players from the score of “Jimmy Carter, Man From Plains.”

Cast

Kym – Anne Hathaway
Rachel – Rosemarie DeWitt
Paul – Bill Irwin
Abby – Debra Winger
Sidney – Tunde Adebimpe
Kiernan – Mather Zickel
Emma – Anisa George

Credits

A Sony Pictures Classics release of a Clinica Estetico production, in association with Marc Platt Prods.
Produced by Jonathan Demme, Neda Armian, Marc Platt.
Executive producers: Ilona Herzberg. Carol Cuddy.
Co-producer: H.H. Cooper.
Directed by Jonathan Demme.
Screenplay: Jenny Lumet.
Camera: Declan Quinn.
Editor: Tim Squyres.
Music: Zafer Tawil, Donald Harrison Jr.
Production designer: Ford Wheeler.
Costume designer: Susan Lyall.
Sound: Jeff Pullman.
Casting: Bernard Telsey.

Running time: 110 Minutes.
MPAA: R.