Jonathan Demme has reached a point in his career where he can make whatever movie he damn well pleases. A documentary about a Haitian radio host (The Agronomist)! A portrait of Jimmy Carter on book tour (Man From Plains)! A Neil Young concert film (Neil Young: Heart of Gold)! And while Demme’s recent remakes of old spy thrillers (The Truth About Charlie, The Manchurian Candidate) have been muddled flops, that doesn’t seem to trouble the director one bit—he just trains his ever-curious camera on what’s next.
Demme is so hip at this point he can comfortably return to being square. Not that the man who made Stop Making Sense was ever all that square, but Demme did make his name with small, intimate dramas about friendship and loneliness and the inexorable pull of family ties (Melvin & Howard, Something Wild). With Rachel Getting Married (Sony Pictures Classics), the story of an addict who’s released from rehab to attend her sister’s wedding, he returns to that rich subject matter. But Demme’s gaze has changed in the intervening years. Something Wild was a paean to forward motion, the road-trip romance par excellence. Rachel Getting Married is about a different kind of journey—the backward time-travel that happens, willy-nilly, whenever you visit home.
The title is a kind of joke, given that its maddening antiheroine, Kym (Anne Hathaway), spends the movie frantically diverting her family’s attention from the fact that Rachel (Rosemarie Dewitt) is, in fact, getting married. Kym, a charismatic black-clad waif in the Edie Sedgwick mold, is a master at shifting the focus back to her own long-running personal drama of drug use and self-destruction. Years before, she was responsible for a terrible accident while high; in the decade or so since, she’s cycled in and out of various high-end rehabs and seen her nurturing noodge of a father (Bill Irwin) divorce her loving but distant mother (Debra Winger). While Kym’s life has been stuck, Rachel’s has taken off: She’s earning a psychology degree and is about to marry an adoring African-American musician named Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe). When Kym arrives at their parents’ sprawling Connecticut compound, her first move is to usurp the maid-of-honor title from Rachel’s best friend (Anisa George); her second is to attend a local 12-step meeting and sleep with the cutest guy there, who also happens to be Sidney’s best man.
So you think you know what kind of movie you’re in for: an intelligent middlebrow psychodrama about sororal competition. (You may even think you just saw it last year; Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding had a remarkably similar setup.) But from Rachel’s first vertiginous moment, the script by Jenny Lumet (Sidney’s daughter, a first-time screenwriter) begins swooping and diving into unexpected places, as does the D.V. camera hand-held by Declan Quinn. Quinn’s freewheeling cinematography at times recalls Dogme films like The Celebration. If this film had been made in conventional three-quarter-shot fashion with an overlaid music score, it might read like a groovier Ordinary People. Instead, Demme lets the camera roam at will and finds a narrative excuse to embed music into every scene: He fills the house with musicians practicing for their wedding performances—a jazz band on the back porch, a lutist on the stairs. At one point a character has to ask the musicians to pipe down so the family can continue with their recriminations in peace. All this music and movement lends the movie a shaggy, Altman-esque texture, a sense that its scope is wider than any one character’s story. The feuding sisters may provide the film’s center, but anyone is free to pick up the talking stick and say his or her piece, and during a long rehearsal-dinner sequence, many of the wedding guests do.
I’ve never been much of an Anne Hathaway fan. She always seemed, to borrow a phrase some brilliant blogger once used about Gwyneth Paltrow, to be “sprinkling herself with fairy dust.” But Hathaway transcends her usual complacency in this role and resists the temptation of using Kym’s (and her own) wounded-bird appeal to let the character off the hook. Bill Irwin, the great stage clown who’s a Demme regular, is marvelously expressive as the girls’ overanxious father. And when the luminous Debra Winger first appears onscreen as their withholding mother, you want to grab her and say (on your own behalf as well as her daughters’): Where have you been all these years?