Much is being made of Anne Hathaway's "breakthrough performance" as the conflicted, self-destructive sister of the titular character in Rachel Getting Married, but the true revelation of the film is Jonathan Demme's directorial breadth. His previous work, such as Silence of the Lambs and the Manchurian Candidate, established his reputation as an assured and accomplished filmmaker, but nothing in those films suggested his faculty for creating an intimate, character-driven art-house "dramedy." Fortunately, he excels.
Having completed her latest stint in rehab, Kym (Hathaway) arrives at her Connecticut family home three days before the marriage of her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) to music producer Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe, lead singer of New York band TV on the Radio). Chain-smoking, loud and attention-seeking, Kym does little to convince her sister that her transformation is heartfelt, but her outlandish behavior masks a deep sorrow for her past actions. Her needy pleas for familial reparation aren't just exhibitionism but an honest wish for expiation. Empowering her histrionics is father Paul (Bill Irwin), while stepmother Carol (Anna Deavere Smith), ousted maid of honor Emma (Anisa George) and best man Kieran (Mather Zickel) do their best to keep the wedding on track.
Staging a Cinderella-in-reverse act, Hathaway sheds her Disney princess precedent and throws herself into the role of Kym, convincingly balancing dysfunction and charm. The film truly belongs to her, but DeWitt and Irwin each give inventive and impassioned performances that strongly define their personalities. The two of them together create the rock and the hard place that Kym violently beats herself between. When Kym gets into a car accident late in the film, it's easy to imagine that she is not attempting to harm herself but rather that she's too emotionally drained to contemplate making a left-hand turn.
All this drama plays out amidst a surreal hodgepodge of colors, customs and ethnic traditions. The majority of the film occurs in and around the family abode, a dwelling so scrupulously mismatched it could serve as an Anthropologie model home. Out on the lawn of said house an unexplained rotating group of musicians provide a live soundtrack during the entire film, improvising and jamming on lutes, violins, jazz trumpets, guitars and ouds. Director Demme utilizes a cinema-verite approach, using handheld cameras (sometimes furnished by the wedding guests themselves) and reportedly eliminating rehearsal takes to capture a more naturalistic feel. And indeed, Jenny Lumet's script at times drags on in a way that anyone who has attended a drawn-out reception will instantly remember.
The off-the-cuff feel serves the film well, as every interaction feels completely honest. Most of the minor roles and the extras at the wedding are all Demme's real friends and family, so the lengthy closing reception actually is a joyous gathering, and its energy is infectious. The multicultural dimension helps add color to what could have been a waspish, drawing-room drama. In the end, Rachel Getting Married gives us a hopeful resolution, affirming that the past cannot be changed, but we should strive to make reparations for the future. God grant us the serenity, courage and wisdom to figure out how the heck to do so.