Sometimes the most important traits of a person can be observed from the moments they spend in the background. Director Jonathan Demme’s new verite-style movie “Rachel Getting Married” is at its truest when its characters are hiding on the fringes of an event that’s bigger than them.
Well at least its bigger to most all of the family—save for Kym, played by Anne Hathaway, who has been in and out of drug rehab for the past ten years or so since causing a serious family tragedy. It’s a wedding, of course, and how many movie weddings have we seen on film, especially in the form of some contrived mushy piece of crap? Rest assured, “Rachel Getting Married” isn’t like that. In fact, its very title shows there is more at play than a marriage, considering the entire movie is shown from Kym’s perspective and she’s not the one in the title.
Kym stumbles back into her family’s life with all her defenses fortified, ready for the naysayers to pounce on her and convinced that everyone is there merely to witness her colossal blow-up at her sister’s wedding. To the picture’s credit, she’s half right. There are many sides to the family, and the bare-bones plot basically follows the tenets of an upscale, artist-friendly wedding. The actions and reactions of Kym’s family are what really drive the lazy forward momentum of the film forward.
Demme’s handheld camera gives the movie a documentary-like feel. The only music in the picture stems from the narrative as presented—what the camera records—and further enhances the film’s reality. Luckily for the audience, the groom’s family and friends are all musicians, so the movie has a kind of score that occurs within the context of the movie, so it doesn’t feel like a film-school experiment. (Demme’s obsessions remain front and center, with Robyn Hitchcock and Neil Young songs—musicians the director has made recent documentaries about—talking center stage, the former actually appearing on camera as a wedding musician.)
The screenplay, by Jenny Lumet (legendary director Sidney Lumet’s daughter), gives Hathaway a very real person to inhabit, and it spends a lot of its time putting her through the familiar motions of the “big family wedding.” Therefore, there are not a lot of unnatural plot developments or twists and turns.
Hathaway plays Kym as a woman with the weight of the world on her shoulders; someone you want to look away from but can’t take your eyes off of. “Rachel Getting Married” concentrates on building the characters of Kym, her over-protective father (Bill Irwin), her aloof mother (Debra Winger), and her sister Rachel (Rosemarie Dewitt), who just wishes that for once (during her wedding, of all times!), the focus could be on her and not her needy sister Kym.
The strength of “Rachel Getting Married” is also its main weakness. The shaky cameras and diagetic sound point the film towards an aesthetic that strives to recreate reality. The natural performances by all the lead actors and the film’s choppy editing style enforce that feeling. So when we do witness a big dramatic moment (unfolding at the most inopportune times, as family crises are wont to do), it is buoyed by a million little moments that seem have no immediate consequence, but that all draw a larger picture.
What I’m basically saying is that “Rachel Getting Married” is a slow movie. Take it how you want. Demme’s strategy pays off in that we feel like we’ve spent time with these people and are able to see the little moments that they may have missed in the hubub of the wedding. These glimpses reveal much. In order to achieve that fly-on-the-wall feeling, Demme has sacrificed a quick pace, and he let the camera linger perhaps a little too long on the general revelry of the night.
On the other hand, letting the movie breathe is the key to knowing the subtleties of Kym and her family. Lumet’s plotting may not be clever, but her characterization is, and the actors are up to the task.