Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married” is about the power of forgiveness within families. It is a movie of great generosity, like a lost Altman film (Altman is thanked in the credits), a tapestry of human faces, joy, pain, and detail everywhere with not one thread out of place. Look where you will – it’s flawless.
Dead center in the film is a game-changing performance by Anne Hathaway as Kym, the sister of the Rachel whose wedding will be tomorrow. Kym is on furlough from the rehab center where she’s been struggling, like a butterfly with still-wet wings trying to get free of the cocoon, for nine months (that number is significant). She is shorn like some kind of penitent, a skater boy’s cut that makes her look ten years younger. Her huge, sensitive, furtive brown eyes are reacting to everything with quicksilver flashes of intelligence, and emotion she’s unable to hide. She’s a raw nerve.
Watch her at the rehearsal dinner, a jumping, exuberantly hippie affair. Rachel, Rosemarie DeWitt, who takes after her father’s warmth but not her mother’s and Kym’s fierce brilliance, is marrying Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), a black jazz musician, a major catch; and though the families at first seem a bizarre mismatch, you quickly see they are united by their boisterousness, and this is going to work. Kym insinuates herself between the bride-to-be and her betrothed; she’s a lost puppy who needs to be reassured that she is important to her sister. She needs to be touched. When Rachel’s snarky best friend gives a speech possessing Rachel, Kym is so threatened that she takes the microphone, and…
This scene has been too much written about, and I won’t spoil it, except to say that it is easy to condemn Kym as irredeemably self-centered. But keep in mind that she has had her life stripped from her; she has no resources to ground her, to help her keep an even keel in a social situation, to have anything to give to anyone else. Add to that a father, huge-hearted but wounded, who hovers constantly, afraid Kym will go off the rails; a sister who considers this to be favoritism, and is furious that the attention is being taken from her wedding; and the eyes of dozens of strangers, all of whom know her failures, stabbing her with accusations real and imagined.
Attentive viewers are likely to pick up on a few planted clues, and piece together early how Kym got lost, and what has happened to this family. As their story becomes clear, I dare your heart not to break.
The average Hollywood movie goes through us like grease through a goose. A few movies in a year have the power – from honesty, from observation of human nature – to open us up like surgery. But rare indeed is the film that operates on us for good reason. This film is a contribution to the world, a great party to which you’re invited, an invitation to heal.
Which is not to say it’s a “message movie”. It’s too specific for that, too expertly observed. The grain of sand in the oyster is a sensitive, imaginative screenplay by Jenny Lumet, daughter of the great director Sidney Lumet, who must have movie-making in her bone marrow. The script provides one memorable scene after another (the father and son-in-law’s race to load the dishwasher and its disastrous ending, leaps to mind, but is just one of a dozen). But it is Demme who has breathed life into the story, made everything three-dimensional, evoking magical performances from Anne Hathaway and Debra Winger, as her Mom, who might be in more pain than anyone, and has mastered the art of hiding it, at the expense of her own capacity to love.
“Rachel Getting Married” is a film I think we’ll be returning to many times, finding new layers of meaning as life experiences and age bring us closer to first one character, then another. What stands out for me above all is the din. It’s that very noise that holds the hope: where there is noise, there is life; and when families stop talking, they begin to die.