'Rachel Getting Married' Is Only the Half of It

Kym (Anne Hathaway) returns home for her sister's wedding after being in and out of rehab, only to throw her family into a dysfunctional fit. Video by Sony Pictures Classics
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2008

The nuptials at the center of Jonathan Demme's "Rachel Getting Married" are the kind most of us will never get invited to. The kind you only read about in Vows, the New York Times' vicariously satisfying bridal-porn column.

Tastefully eccentric, upscale and casually multicultural, the Connecticut wedding of psychologist Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) and her music-biz honey Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe) is filled with the signifiers of the affluent, liberal -- and slightly boho -- elite. The bridesmaids wear saris. The food is an exotic, unpronounceable smorgasbord. Musicians of all styles serenade the guests: Robyn Hitchcock one minute, a marching band the next. The fact that the bride is white and her groom black barely registers.

Demme manages all this handsome chaos with a steady hand, if fashionably shaky camera. I'd call his choreography of the swirling action and overlapping dialogue Altmanesque, except that the films "Rachel" most powerfully evokes are not those of the late, great director of such cinematic circuses as "Nashville" and "A Wedding," but the best work of Demme himself. Its madcap verve, organic use of music -- even its dark emotional complexity -- hark back to "The Silence of the Lambs" and "Something Wild."

It's that accomplished.

Now I know I said that this film centers on a wedding, but that's not exactly true. Its actual focal point isn't the impending union of Rachel and Sidney, but the arrival of Rachel's younger sister Kym (Anne Hathaway), a recovering addict on weekend furlough from a residential rehab facility. More than a loose cannon, Kym exerts an almost gravitational pull on the film's many orbiting bodies. She changes the equilibrium of the movie itself.

You can feel Kym's destabilizing influence as soon as she walks in the door. Not just with Rachel -- whose desire to be the perfect daughter in the face of Kym's self-destruction gives new meaning to the phrase "sibling rivalry" -- but with their frazzled father, Paul (Bill Irwin), so desperate to keep the peace. You can feel it with Emma (Anisa George), Rachel's best friend, from whom Kym steals the title of maid of honor. You even feel it with random guests, one of whom (Mather Zickel, playing Sidney's best man) is seduced by Kym, who has recognized him from her new 12-step group.

The camera can't seem to take its eye off her, either. The hand-held cinematography by Declan Quinn -- like Demme, a sometime documentarian of rock concerts -- masterfully puts you in the middle of things, lurching from one eddy of movement to another. But whenever Hathaway's on-screen, it locks onto her. With her oversize, almost extraterrestrial eyes and mouth, and a haircut that looks like it came courtesy of a Cuisinart, she commands attention.

It's attention that will be rewarded.

For behind Kym's seeming need for the spotlight, there's a darker secret, and the story (by screenwriter Jenny Lumet, the daughter of director Sidney) coaxes it into the light only gradually. Suffice it to say there's good reason that Rachel has gone into the field of psychology, and that Paul's obsessive cheeriness is so fragile. Irwin, a former clown, brings Pagliaccio's sense of buried tragedy to the role. Debra Winger, in an indelible cameo as Rachel and Kym's estranged mother, is equally broken.

But more than anything, it's Hathaway's show. Continuing the transformation from princess to prickly bad girl she began with the 2005 "Havoc," an underappreciated, straight-to-DVD release from filmmaker Barbara Kopple, Hathaway gives free rein to Kym's warring impulses to heal and to inflame. The role is neither straightforward nor easy, and she's sometimes hard to watch.

But like the guests at this wedding, you'll probably find yourself staring, in something between slack-jawed horror and recognition, at the all-too-human train wreck taking place in front of you, unable to look away.

Rachel Getting Married (113 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for language and a brief sex scene.

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