Powerful quality film, but not comedy

Rachel Getting Married
United States, 2008

Directed By: Jonathan Demme
Written By: Jenny Lumet
Anne Hathaway, Debra Winger, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill IrwinRunning Time: 114 minutes
Rated R for language and brief sexuality
4.5 out of 5 stars

Put crassly, Rachel Getting Married is like a 2 hour episode of The Office without any of the humor. Unpleasant, uncomfortable, and even seat-squirmingly painful to watch, it is neither funny, adorable, nor particularly heartwarming. (despite what the blatantly misleading marketing campaign would have you believe) But it is the best work director Jonathan Demme has done since Silence of the Lambs as well as being, hands down, one of the best films of 2008.
Anne Hathaway demolishes her Princess-next-door image from the first chain smoking frame as Kym, a junkie fresh off a 9-month stint in rehab with a disposition to match her attractive “pastime.” She’s off to her sister’s wedding to spread goodwill and cheer, although bride-to-be Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) doesn’t quite see it that way. Unresolved tensions and repressed secrets come packed in Kym’s baggage, and what better time than a wedding to air out all that rotting laundry? I’ve always liked Hathaway, but I never knew she had this in her. It’s the kind of performance that irrevocably alters the trajectory of a career, like The Accused for Jodie Foster or Mullholland Dr. for Naomi Watts.

Weddings are a favorite item in Hollywood’s grabbag-’o-clichés, second only to “high concept lie a relationship must overcome” and “creepy whispering child.” Screenwriter Jenny Lumet (daughter to, yup, Sydney Lumet) uses this cliche for a foundation but builds upon it the most naturalistic, intimate, and razor-sharp portrait of familial suffering since In the Bedroom. Initially I assumed the effortless rapport between the characters was produced by Mike Leigh-style scripting, a product of improvisation rather than a screenwriter’s mind, but Jonathan Demme has stated that the majority of the script, including Kym’s stomach-churning rehearsal dinner toast, is word for word what Lumet put on the page. If that’s the case, bravo, standing ovation, encore please. It’s brilliant, nuanced work, guaranteed to net her an Oscar nom this year if not a win.

Demme compliments the in-the-moment script with fly-on-the-wall filmmaking, employing cinema vérité camerawork that can distract, (pop zooms and low-fi handycam footage being the greatest offenders) but overwhelmingly enables the audience to participate, like voyeuristic second cousins once removed, in the emotional inferno erupting on-screen. As Kym and Rachel and their parents (played by Bill Irwin and Debra Winger, heartrending performances both) nastily pick the scabs off one another’s long buried wounds, the film becomes very hard to watch. Literally. Much of the time I was curled up in my seat in the fetal position, jacket over my head, peeking out through a slit, physically squirming at the rawness on display, more horrified at the words these people would speak to one another than any blood or viscera the horror genre could ever produce.

Much of the film’s effectiveness is due to Demme and Lumet’s stubborn unwillingness to choose sides. Your sympathies arc back and forth between parties, each character endearing themselves to you before provoking anger minutes later. Kym’s passive aggressive assaults initially disgust before a regret-tinged confession in an AA meeting frames her insecurities in an entirely new light; others go through a similar metamorphosis. Film, by its very nature, requires you to form judgments, but unlike the majority of cinema that spoon feeds you ready-made conclusions, Rachel Getting Married constantly forces you to reevaluate. Like The Wire, nothing is simple and, more often than not, things will end badly.

“Enjoy” is not the right word to apply to Rachel Getting Married; “endure” might be more appropriate. But this is powerful, compelling cinema from craftsmen working at the top of their game. It’s a career redefiner for one woman and a career starter for another, and this critic, for one, is eager to see what they do next.

About the author:
Evan Derrick loves movies, loves talking about movies, and even makes them from time to time. In addition to being the founder and senior editor for MovieZeal.com, he is also a member of the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle and a father of two beautiful children. He can be reached for comment or complaint at evan@moviezeal.com.