After nearly a year of treatment for her drug and alcohol addiction, Kym Buchman (Anne Hathaway) is given a release from rehab for a few days to attend the wedding of her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). Coming along for the visit with Kym is all the personal baggage she’s accumulated from years of drug abuse, family conflict and a personal tragedy. As the wedding day approaches, the long-simmering tensions between Kym, her sister, and their parents, Paul (Bill Irwin) and Abby (Debra Winger) threaten to intervene and upset what should be the happiest day of Rachel’s life.
During the ’80s, director Jonathan Demme made a mild name for himself with cult comedies Swing Shift, Something Wild and Married to the Mob, the latter of which received high praise and earned a decent success at the box office, along with a Best Supporting Actor nod for Quantum Leap’s Dean Stockwell. His next film, which came at the onset of the ’90s, is the one most everyone associates him with to this day – The Silence of the Lambs. The Hannibal Lecter crime thriller went on to become a huge box office hit and is still one of only three films to win in all five major categories at the Oscars: Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Actress (Jodie Foster), Best Director (Jonathan Demme), Best Adapted Screenplay (Ted Tally) and Best Picture.
Following his Oscar-winning Tom Hanks/Denzel Washington led Philadelphia, though, Demme went 0-3 over the next fifteen years with Beloved and two weak remakes, The Truth About Charlie and The Manchurian Candidate. However, after three disappointments, Demme would bounce back in small but nevertheless strong fashion with the character-driven Rachel Getting Married.
It’s no surprise that Hollywood has a huge infatuation with wedding movies. From Father of the Bride, Four Weddings and a Funeral, My Best Friend’s Wedding to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Wedding Crashers and Bridesmaids, all the studios love the opportunities for numerous eccentric characters, comedic situations, romance and melodrama that wedding films provide. Rachel Getting Married, however, is different. There are characters aplenty, but both they and the story around them are told in a simple style, relying on the complexities of its lead character and her struggle to remain clean to be the film’s driving dramatic force.
Demme’s approach here is minimalist. Hand-held cameras are used for the most part, scenes are shot in longer takes and natural lighting is employed. With great help from Jenny Lumet’s (daughter of the late, legendary filmmaker Sidney Lumet) screenplay, one that refreshingly doesn’t feel the need to wrap up every little story thread in a neat bow, Demme focuses on all the little things families do in preparation for a wedding, which creates an authentic vibe as if we’re witnessing a home video recording of the Buchman family wedding. At times, the film can get a tad bit carried away in its minutia, which detracts a little from the central conflict revolving around Kym, but we’re talking about only minor quibbles in comparison to what works here. Overall, Demme and Lumet’s attention to the everyday, irrelevant details never reach a point of overwhelming the film.
Front and center here is Anne Hathaway in a performance that certainly helped in setting her apart from the squeaky clean, G-rated Disney image she gained from the Princess Diaries franchise and Ella Enchanted. Some might argue Havoc already did that for her, but honestly, did anyone actually see that film?
I admit that I’m not the biggest fan of Hathaway. Her vastly overrated performance in Les Miserables aside, I can’t help but think, every time I’ve seen her interviewed, that she gives self-importance a new meaning. Hey, maybe her farts do smell like roses, who knows? Personal feelings out of the way, Hathaway gives a tremendous performance here, one that is a career best to this day, and it’s a role that’s all the more difficult to take on considering Kym is in no way a saint. Yeah, her drug addiction clearly isn’t a plus, but she’s also volatile, self-absorbed and spiteful. In the wrong hands, this woman could’ve been extremely insufferable to sit through, yet Hathaway handles every aspect of her role – the spite, isolation, desperation and pain – perfectly. While Kym’s behavior isn’t condoned, the more her backstory is revealed, the more we understand why she is the way she is, and the fact that she’s riddled with guilt over the things she’s done and the hurt she’s caused in the past gives her mostly unlikeable self a touch of heart-wrenching humanity.
Matching Hathaway’s fantastic work is co-star Rosemarie DeWitt (who should’ve gotten a Supporting Actress nod for her wonderful turn here) as Kym’s soon-to-be wed sister who loves her but can only take so much of her instability. Bill Irwin gives a strong, understated performance as Kym’s dad whose love for her is undying, but often blinds him from the problems she often causes. The invaluable Debra Winger only appears in a handful of scenes, but she immediately reminds us of the immense talent she showcased in films like An Officer and a Gentleman, Terms of Endearment and Shadowlands in the limited time she has, particularly during a conversation between her and Hathaway that reveals more about their characters than any other moment they share together.
Led by a powerful and complex performance from Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married is a strong return to form for director Jonathan Demme that’s minimalist in terms of story and style, but absolutely rich in character thanks to Jenny Lumet’s script and a strong cast of key supporting players to back up Hathaway. Though Demme and Lumet’s portrait of this fractured American family is undoubtedly bleak and heartbreaking at times, the film is far from a pity party, and provides moments of hope and enough understated humor to make for a relatable and honest, even if brutally so at times, experience.