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‘Rachel Getting Married’

Family dysfunction has never been so perfect

by Kaori Shoji

In cinema, getting personal is generally considered a good thing — what would the whole indies/Sundance experience be without it? But some films are so intimate it hurts. “Rachel Getting Married” is like that.

As its title suggests, this is a wedding movie, with the usual trappings of the family gathering, family relationship dynamics and — increasingly typical of the genre — family secrets rolling out of the closet.

Director Jonathan Demme tailored the film into a faux documentary complete with the (expertly) jittery hand-held camera wielded by cinematographer Declan Quin. The look and texture is that of a home video, enhanced by the hand-crafted, Indian-themed wedding (the cake is shaped like an elephant), but the resemblance to reality stops there. In real-life wedding videos, people pull out their best smiles and take the trouble to be nice — in “Rachel Getting Married” the characters dispense with conventional politeness in favor of brutal honesty. They strike where it hurts and go at each other’s jugulars, and in some scenes, you’ll be glad they’re in the living room and not in the kitchen among the steak knives.

Rachel Getting Married
Rating
Director Jonathan Demme
Run Time 113 minutes
Language English

Demme — best known for “Silence of the Lambs,” a lofty, precisely orchestrated tale of fear and blood — sheds his lofty, auteur demeanor and comes off like some brilliant young thing recently graduated from New York University film school, destined with this feature debut to become an indie-film critics’ darling.

Demme relishes each wild mood swing, each incident of embarrassment and humiliation, pursuing tracts of pain and anxiety seeping over in facial closeups. He demonically emphasizes the inflections in voices that are suddenly raised in rage or are lowered, choking back tears. In one bizarre but telling scene, Dad (Bill Irwin) and his prospective son-in-law (Tunde Adebimpe) engage in a kitchen battle to see who can stock the dishwasher with the most speed and efficiency, with the whole household crowding to watch. The son-in-law is good, but Dad is better; yet just as he’s about to release a chortle of victory, he spies a relic from the past that had been pushed to the back of a cabinet but now brought out to the sink by mistake. Suddenly he falls silent, his face literally shuts down and he stalks out of the kitchen ignoring the confused whispers of “What is it? What happened?”

The film is crammed with such awkward, fragile moments. During the long weekend — which starts with family members and friends gathering at the Connecticut house where the celebrations are about to take place, followed by fittings and the rehearsal dinner and finally leading to the overwrought nuptial ceremony — emotional crises erupt like an overexcited volcano. Occasionally, the emotional caliber is pitched so high you’ll feel your own nerves start to fray and tear. But as one of the wedding guests puts it so aptly: “Hey what do you want? It’s a wedding!” Indeed, Rachel (Rosemary DeWitt) rises to the challenge of being a lovely bride-to-be and a nasty screamster at one and the same time, and she’s also in charge of her own wedding production. Her younger, problematic sister, Kim (Anne Hathaway), has shown up after a nine-month stint in rehab dressed in sinister Goth-like garb, smoking compulsively in Rachel’s bedroom. After they hug each other, Kim compliments Rachel on how thin she is with a casual, “So are you puking again?”

Rachel and Kim’s dad gamely tries to hold everything together with the air of a martyred patriarch, continuously making and offering food. Debra Winger gives a brief but memorable performance as the mother, Abby, a woman who gets a “who me?” look on her face whenever her daughters call out “mom!” It appears Kim and Rachel’s parents divorced a long time ago, and judging from the way Rachel is getting married in Dad’s house, and that Dad brought Kim home from rehab, it seems that Abby has never really involved herself in the lives of her daughters. Rachel is grudgingly resigned to this, but Kim is not. She’s not resigned to anything as she scurries around the house, dragging out old skeletons. Kim broadcasts her need for love and attention with loud insistence, then has no idea what to do when she gets them. She’s a monster with a will to be one, but it’s hard not to be touched by her open-wound vulnerability and bold honesty. And Rachel, who recognizes her sister’s bravery, can’t help but forgive Kim for her many crimes (and on this day of all days, too). Never has family dysfunction been drawn with such brazen matter-of-factness or such genuine warmth.