When Hathaway and DeWitt are on-camera together, there's a palpable seethe of sibling rivalry.

James Plath's picture

For a first screenplay, "Rachel Getting Married" is an accomplished bit of writing from bit-part actress Jenny Lumet, and an interesting experiment from director Jonathan Demme ("Silence of the Lambs"). With a jittery hand-held camera constantly running in faux real, recording all the behind-the-scenes and ceremonial goings-on at a wedding, you know that Demme is trying to approximate an amateurish home video of an important family event. In this, he succeeds. Some of the shots are exactly the sort family or friends with a camcorder would find "important" enough to chronicle--like capturing every single toast at a rehearsal dinner. But as in most amateur videos, scenes like these go on uncomfortably long, and there's lots of equally long random footage as well--the kind that someone documenting a wedding would be on the prowl to capture, but which you watch later and think, overkill.

Demme stays so close to the home video mode that "Rachel Getting Married" feels as true an example of cinema verite as any. But, of course, truthfulness and entertainment are two different things. The dilemma is, How do you shoot in the style of a wedding video without completely embracing all the familiar tropes that make those videos tough to watch? I'm not sure there's an answer, and so frankly I can't come down too hard on Demme for trying. At least "Rachel Getting Married" is an interesting variation on what's becoming a genre in itself: the prodigal returning home to family. And thank goodness this prodigal isn't returning for the holidays.

Anne Hathaway truly earns her Best Actress Oscar nomination as Kym, a 30-something woman who's had a substance abuse problem since she was a teen and has been in and out of rehab the past 10 years. But Rosemarie DeWitt is just as wonderful as Rachel--the sister who's getting married. When the Hathaway and DeWitt are on-camera together, there's a palpable seethe of sibling rivalry that overshadows the wedding, Kym's problems, or even the horrible event that everyone has been trying to put behind them: the day that Kym, high again, drove the car off a bridge and accidentally killed their only brother.

The film's biggest contrivance comes early, when Kym is released from rehab the day before her sister is to be married. She shows up as musicians are playing here and there and people are erecting a tent on the lawn and going about their errand business. Those musicians are the film's other contrivance. I've known a lot of musicians, and they don't just play from start to finish in the background, the way those goofball troubadours did in "There's Something About Mary" . . . unless they're being paid. And when they and their music are literally in every scene at the family's house in Connecticut, it's hard not to think of the Farrelly brothers' comedy. Other than that dual artifice, everything else proceeds with the kind of casual honesty of a real family gathering. Their conversations seem real, the back-and-forth seems real, the overlapping dialogue seems real, and the strained politeness between two families brought together through marriage is absolutely on-the-money. So is the often-true cliché of bridesmaids hooking up, embarrassing toasts from friends who knew you when you weren't of marriageable quality,

Lumet manages to suggest depth in relationships without using dialogue to fill us in, and that contributes to the film's sense of authenticity and also adds tension and invites viewers to actively become involved in the film. When, for example, Kym finds out that her sister yanked her "bridesmaid" title and gave it to another friend because she wasn't sure she'd be out of rehab by the wedding, it speaks volumes about the sisters' relationship. Wouldn't some sisters postpone? Or not make the switch until the very last minute? And wouldn't some sisters tell their sibling that, or let them know they were moving to Hawaii after the wedding? For that matter, wouldn't some sisters, given the circumstances and checkered past, understand? Each takes a turn having controlled outbursts, while their father, Paul (Bill Irwin) and his new wife, Carol (Anna Deavere Smith) try to play both hosts to guests and psychologists to the sisters. From the moment that Kym wanders into their midst, everyone behaves as if she were a dormant volcano that could erupt unpredictably any second now. Some of it is tension because she's a reminder of a lost family member, sure, but most of it is because of the edgy quality that Hathaway brings to the role that makes her character both sympathetic and also downright dangerous. You don't know what she's going to do (or say) next, and in this respect she's the black sheep that families are perfectly content to see as little as possible.

Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), the man Rachel is marrying, is a musician, and so of course he has musician friends, and music knows no cultural boundaries. But multiculturalism feels a bit on parade in this film. As my wife quipped, it starts to feel a bit like the United Colors of Benetton, and the different types of music (including a marching junkanoo-style song, complete with whistleblower) seem to be trying too hard to be inclusive and celebratory of all ethnic groups in the same way that the wedding itself brings together two groups. The intent may have been pure, but the effect is that it feels like a third contrivance in an otherwise fluid film.

Yes, the camera spins around and gets a little too nervous for my tastes, but the family dynamics and the reality-style filming is surprisingly effective. And the performances? The main actors react well to Hathaway's intense but controlled performance, with a highlight coming from Debra Winger in a surprisingly understated performance as the girl's mother. Even Mather Zickel as a fellow rehabber and the groom's family (Kyrah Julian, Carol Jean Lewis, and Herreast Harrison, especially) contribute to both the undercurrent of tension and surface celebration that makes "Rachel Getting Married" ultimately worth watching. Family dysfunction is an easy thing to exaggerate or conflate, but "Rachel Getting Married" gets it convincingly right.

Sony Pictures Classics went with an AVC/MPEG-4 transfer, and it's a good one. The level of detail is generally good, and while the black levels could have been a little stronger for my taste, the colors were natural-looking and not oversaturated, and the skin tones appeared accurate. This must have been a difficult film to light because of so many different skin colors, but there's no significant shadowing. To go along with the illusion of a home movie, there's a deliberate, slight texturing and graininess throughout. But in 1080p and at a ratio of 1.85:1, "Rachel Getting Married" looks awfully nice. No complaints.

I can't say that the English or French Dolby TrueHD 5.1 was impressive, though, and you'd think with background music for most of the film it would be important to try to balance the bright treble with a more resonant bass, or that it would matter more to try to get a nice wide spread across the speakers so as to fill the room with sound. But I found that the ambient sounds hung pretty close to the speakers that channeled them, and the soundtrack didn't have the dynamics it might have. Again, this may have been deliberate, because how many wedding videos have booming, accomplished and pristine soundtracks? Subtitles are in English, English SDH, and French.

There's an adequate mix of extras included, with Lumet, producer Neda Armian, and editor Tim Squyres talking us through a nice "enhanced" version of the film and pointing out the usual blend of what inspired a scene, what the intent was, and how the actors pulled it off. Surprisingly, though, a second track features only Dewitt. I guess an Oscar nomination drives the price up for doing a commentary track, and Sony couldn't afford it. That's too bad, because the two provide such a wonderful give-and-take on-camera that it would have been nice to hear them in person. It's still a worthwhile commentary, though.

Other features are fairly scant. A 15-minute making-of feature feels a lot like a pre-publicity promo reel, and "The Wedding Band" is a seven-minute blip about the music and musicians. Also included are nine deleted scenes and the original trailer in Hi-Def. The feature that I enjoyed the most was a rambling Q&A session at Jacob Burns Center that featured most of the cast and crew and ran close to 50 minutes. You take the good with the bad in this one, but it had a kind of honesty that I like in bonus features.

"Rachel Getting Married" is also BD-Live enabled, but does anybody care?

Bottom Line:
Anne Hathaway is mesmerizing to watch in this Jonathan Demme film, and the whole shoot-it-like-a-wedding-video concept ultimately works more often than it fails. It's a nice example of cinema verite that feels like real-time and real people.


Film Value