Samuel Johnson famously remarked that a second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience. Director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Jenny Lumet, in their tumultuous and moving Rachel Getting Married, suggest that this saying applies to a first marriage, too, when the bride or groom is the product of a shattered family.
Of course, Rachel Buchman's doting father, Paul (Bill Irwin), and his second wife, Carol (Baltimore native Anna Deavere Smith), wish great happiness for the bride-to-be (Rosemarie DeWitt). On the eve of her marriage to Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), they fill their Connecticut home with friends, musicians and musician-friends; after all, Paul is a music industry executive and Sidney a record producer. Working with the peerless cinematographer Declan Quinn (In America, Pride and Glory), Demme directs on his toes, using cameras that follow the action lightly and freely, bringing out the vivid "in the moment" quality of Lumet's bristling script. The movie sets off vibrations as encompassing, delicate and sure as the tones of the omnipresent violinist Zafer Tawil.
As Rachel's little sister, Kym (Anne Hathaway), noisily attests, and the distance of their mother, Abby (Debra Winger), quietly indicates, a family can't brush aside its past, then move into the future without a hitch. Kym, a recovering addict on a weekend pass from rehab, at first seems like a walking disaster or a ghost from some less happy time. (We often view her through an anti-halo of cigarette smoke.) She anticipates and sometimes provokes the bad vibes emanating toward her from her family and others, especially Rachel's snappish, overprotective best friend, Emma (Anisa George).
Kym isn't simply a troublemaker. Having looked ruthlessly within, she can sense when Rachel and Paul aren't coming clean with her or with each other. Rachel hasn't told Kym that she's moving to Hawaii and has asked Emma, not Kym, to be her maid of honor. Paul drives Kym just as crazy when he refuses to let her drive a car - the thought of Kym behind the wheel summons memories of an awful tragedy - and needs to know her whereabouts every minute. Demme's triumph is that he makes it understandable that her family continues to react to her as if she were an active addict. Kym is an irritant, a source of rough-edged comedy. She's also a truth detector who can't help evaluating the honesty of others.
Hathaway, with her hair hanging in a jagged version of a soup-bowl cut and her eyes taking everything in and letting only certain things out, gives a performance unique in its perspective and profound in its volatility. It's rooted yet mercurial, and you surrender to her immediately. She carries you on an emotional whirligig that can be horrifying and funny, hopeful and devastating.
Underneath the surface chaos she brings into an open-hearted, liberal New England world, her presence raises the question: If Rachel can't be honest and generous with Kym, how will she be able to withstand the pressures of marriage?
The spectacle of Kym carving a place for herself where she once belonged asks us to ponder the difficulty of true forgiveness and the rarity of bone-deep understanding. In its own seriocomic and sometimes tragic way, Rachel Getting Married demonstrates that 12-step recovery programs work for everyone only when families and friends join the equivalent patient support programs. When addicts change their behavior, family and friends must change theirs, too.
The movie's scope may be limited, but it boasts a piercing and vast sense of how hurt, warmth and joy - and past, present and future - commingle in today's complicated clans. The tender edge Irwin brings to Paul's paternal pride serves to modulate his anguish. In one of the film's equally ticklish and poignant turnarounds, we see a silly game - a contest to see who can fill up a dishwasher the quickest - become abruptly sad for this haunted man.
DeWitt evokes the rattled normality of the elder child who resents the way her younger sister keeps grabbing attention during the biggest weekend of her life. But the acting honors belong to Hathaway and Winger, who, in a passage of Eugene O'Neill-like intensity, unearth the roots of a festering conflict. It's a new kind of primal scene - Kym, the daughter struggling to access all her experiences, confronts Abby, a mother who has buried hers. Hathaway and Winger act with incandescence as Kym and Abby's antagonism turns inflammatory. Any mother-and-daughter politeness or facade falls away. Hathaway is fearless, and Winger is amazing: She's able to use the word "sweetheart" as an endearment and a cutting tool.
Almost everyone in the family of Rachel Getting Married shares a bit of grace; even the vile Emma looks like a cute, smudged angel the morning after the wedding. Demme's technique blooms in the wedding scene, when the married couple's bliss becomes contagious. When Sidney sings a Neil Young song to Rachel as his wedding vow, Kym shares the perfection of their moment, and Demme and Quinn frame them together with a tremulous beauty. What's important for Demme is not that they live happily ever after, but that they are ecstatic in this moment. From one masterstroke after another, he builds a portrait of a resilient family. Yet nothing in it is studied or self-conscious. This director never sweats the small stuff. He treasures it.
Rachel Getting Married
(Sony Pictures Classics) Starring Anne Hathaway, Bill Irwin, Rosemarie DeWitt, Debra Winger. Directed by Jonathan Demme. Rated R for sex, drug use and emotional violence. Time 114 minutes.