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Movie Review

Rachel Getting Married

Invited to share the joy and the pain: In 'Rachel,' Demme throws a heartfelt wedding

Anne Hathaway (left) and Rosemarie DeWitt star in ''Rachel Getting Married.'' Anne Hathaway (left) and Rosemarie DeWitt star in ''Rachel Getting Married.'' (Bob vergara/sniscak productions/sony pictures classics)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / October 10, 2008
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You might leave "Rachel Getting Married" moved by its tale of two sisters squabbling through the weekend of one of their weddings. Or maybe you'll leave thinking that in director Jonathan Demme you just found your wedding planner.

Demme and screenwriter Jenny Lumet have given us an epic rehearsal dinner, ceremony, and reception that's half-cabaret, half group-therapy session, and completely multiracial, multicultural, and multisensory. It's all cool yet terribly New Agey (like Cambridge letting Williamsburg, Brooklyn, move into its house).

But the movie means every minute of it - the dewy songs, the earnest salutes, the rambling toasts to the young interracial newlyweds Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe). All that goodness is ultimately contagious, since Demme makes you feel like you've been cordially invited to sit at the table.

The director's style here is fly-on-the-wall realism, with the digital camera wandering, hand-held, through a big Connecticut house where musicians tune their instruments, somebody is always washing dishes, and a stranger has just walked in. Her name is Kym (Anne Hathaway), and she's the force of hurt threatening to ruin her sister's - and Demme's - party. Kym's nine months in rehab have left her brittle, sardonic, and with a short, sharp haircut typically worn by women in Japanese anime.

Her initial reunion with the outside world leads the film into wonderfully eerie territory. Kym trudges through a convenience store, and the girl behind the counter has a flash of recognition: "Hey, didn't I see you on 'Cops'?" At her family's house, she produces the opposite effect, going from room to room without so much as a "Welcome home."

"I just saw a ghost," somebody says as Kym drifts by. For a moment, it feels as if Demme and Lumet are trying to conjure the supernaturalism of the unhappy Danish family get-together in 1998's "The Celebration." But the movie slips out of its lovely ambiguity and back to emotional earth.

As the weekend rolls on, Kym attends recovery meetings, has sex with the comical best man (Math er Zickel), who is also an addict, confronts her divorced parents (Bill Irwin and Debra Winger, both very good), and blows up at Rachel who, among other offenses, has chosen her best friend (Anisa George) to be the maid of honor instead of Kym.

She and Rachel, who's getting a psychology PhD, fall into what must be old patterns of ambivalence - sisterly hate, love, remorse, recrimination. Kym uses her addiction as an excuse for narcissism and neglect. Rachel uses more passive-aggressive tactics. And they rope in their painfully conflict-averse father. Rachel is convinced Kym has always been his favorite. He tries to defend himself, but his dilemma is unenviable. He seems almost permanently cowed. Sidney and the girls' stepmother (Anna Deavere Smith) are just innocent bystanders.

This could have been wildly, embarrassingly melodramatic. It also could have been about the cultural skirmishes that mar some interracial weddings. But Demme and Lumet have created one of those progressive, well-to-do New England families that probably sees itself as having moved beyond race. A dishwasher-loading contest between Irwin, the white stage actor, and Adebimpe, the black lead vocalist in TV on the Radio, is played as a mock struggle for power that ends in tears, but for other reasons entirely.

The movie's few false notes come from Lumet's script, which can be overly explanatory. Because Demme is opting for present-tense realism, the characters are forced to fill us in on who did what when to whom, why, and how. Kym, for instance, was not only a junkie. Her drug abuse precipitated a family tragedy, the details of which have to be revealed in information-packed conversations that are jarringly forced. When she drives to her mother's for an ugly altercation, the movie threatens to go off the deep end.

Kym is the movie's central dramatic problem. Hungry for attention, she relentlessly intrudes on the overall good mood. Her stupendously awkward toast to Rachel at the rehearsal dinner amounts to a survivor raising a glass to herself. But the empathetic embarrassment I felt gradually turned to exasperation. And you can feel Rachel losing her compassion, too.

Hathaway is miscast - I can't see her strung out on anything but back issues of Sassy - but through sheer determination she overcomes her limitations. In the final scenes, watching others happily dance their way through the wedding reception, she makes you sense that Kym is finally resisting the urge for a spotlight that doesn't belong to her.

That seems fair since Rosemarie DeWitt, as the title character, is the best thing in the movie. Her performance is a real emotional wonder; this self-confident woman reverts to insecure adolescence when Kym is around.

DeWitt's soulfulness matches her director's vibrancy. While Demme tolerates the self-centeredness afoot, he seems more interested in human connection than in the heavy emotional baggage a melodrama has to carry from scene to scene. His generosity might actually make him a better party thrower than a filmmaker, but the difference is moot. I really like watching his parties.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

Rachel Getting Married

Directed by: Jonathan Demme

Written by: Jenny Lumet

Starring: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Anna Deavere Smith, Tunde Adebimpe, Mather Zickel, and Debra Winger

At: Kendall Square, Waltham Embassy, Coolidge Corner

Running time: 115 minutes

Rated: R (language, brief sexuality, and a scene of striking domestic violence)

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