Rachel Getting Married

Posted on March 10, 2009 at 8:01 am

Fiction is usually very linear, just because of the limits of time. The longest epic and the thickest novel don’t have enough scope to encompass extraneous detail. In real life people can’t find parking spots and fumble for correct change, but in movies everything usually moves with aerodynamic directness except for the elements of the particular muddle the characters are facing and we are attuned to expect that when a character says he has never done something that by the end of the film he will and that when a character gets a nosebleed by the end of the film he will probably be gone. Movie stories happen in the center of the frame, but real life happens around the edges. Move stories lay things out for the audience but real life is messy. Jonathan Demme’s brilliant new film is messy the way life is messy. Its power sneaks up on you. But by the time it is over, you will find that its characters and story have become real to you in a way that a crisper style of story-telling could not convey.

Kym (Anne Hathaway) is a substance abuser who has been in and out of rehab many times. As the movie opens, she is waiting to be picked up by her father, Paul (Bill Irwin), so she can go to the wedding of her sister Rachel (“Mad Men’s” Rosemarie DeWitt).

Filmed in an intimate, documentary style with a hand-held digital camera, the weekend unfolds like a home movie. The only music we hear is the music of the wedding, as musicians rehearse and perform throughout the weekend. When Paul jokingly tells one of the groom’s cousins, a young serviceman, to stop filming everything all the time it is possible to imagine that what we are watching is the footage he has been taking. Demme takes some audacious risks, letting scenes run on much longer than we are used to. It seems out of control, even self-indulgent until it becomes clear that Demme is utterly in charge and there is not a wasted frame.

Kym is defensive, hypersensitive, contrite, and very needy. She is a master of attention judo. Even in the midst of her sister’s wedding, she manages to turn the subject to herself. At the rehearsal dinner, after loving toast after toast, filled with affectionate jokes, Kym stands up and goes into a long, embarrassing speech about her need to make amends. She has impulsive sex with the best man. She displaces the maid of honor. And nothing is ever enough.

This is not another in the long series of awards-bait movies about substance abusers, going back to “The Lost Weekend” and “Come Fill the Cup,” through “28 Days” and “Clean and Sober.” Although at times it seems she is trying to grab our attention, too, Kym is not the focus of the story though at times she seems to be the manifestation of all of the rest of the family’s repressed feelings, while Paul keeps offering everyone food and pleading with them not to fight and the girls’ mother Abby (Debra Winger in a performance of controlled ferocity), superficially benign but always just out of reach. We see the scars before we hear the stories of the wounds as we meet the second spouses of Paul and Deborah and see how the family talks around certain areas.

But there is enormous generosity of spirit in this family. It is wonderfully diverse, with both Rachel and Paul married to African-Americans and a wide assortment of friends and family. The music that surrounds them is nourishing and inspiring. But there is also enormous pain as we only come to understand so gradually that we feel it before we think it. This masterful film is a quiet treasure, profoundly enriching.

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Drama Family Issues

5 Replies to “Rachel Getting Married”

  1. Hi Nell,
    I am 14 years old and I want to see this movie. How much sex and language is there in it? I think it may be ok because I have seen other R rated movies such as Burn After Reading, Tropic Thunder, Step Brothers, and Charlie Willsons War.

  2. Hi, Michael — I appreciate your asking me, but you and your parents need to think about the question differently. The movie’s appropriateness and suitability for you should not be based on what else you have seen but on how well you are capable of appreciating the context and meaning of what you have seen. What is it about this film that makes you want to see it? What do you hope to get from it? “Tropic Thunder” and “Step Brothers” are raunchy comedies. This is a complex and subtle drama.
    I would be less concerned about the language (I am sure you know those words already) and sex (non-explicit) than about the very painful exploration of family dysfunction and tragedy in the film. The question is whether that is something you are capable of getting the most out of.

  3. Hi Nell,
    I talked to my parents about this movie and I went to go see it. Thank you so much for the helpful advice. I will be sure to come back whenever I need movie help. Thanks again

  4. My son is a devoted fan of Ms Hathaway, so he convinced my wife and I to go with him to see this movies in the cheap theater last week. It is certainly a change from her earlier films, and definitely not your typical “chick flick”! The story was a study of transitions. One was a transition from the free and easy 60s and 70s to the uptight and controlled 90’s and 00’s. Another was the reversal of the parents roles, dad was warm and nurturing and mom was career oriented at the expense of family. Older and younger sisblings reversed roles in terms of getting attention. But in the midst of it all the heroic sister who would have earned all the attention was lost to the troubled and troublsome sister. The only character for which I felt any connection or hope was the best man. Ironically, the one character to which almost no attention was paid was the groom – whose own story was hinted at but never explored.
    I am a real fan of folk and world music, but after a while even I flashed on a Monty Python line, “Shut the Bleeding Bazooki OFF!” The soundtrack became a diversion, a distraction, and I guess ultimately, a character itself. The wedding was – well, I have never done one quite like that, though I might be interested to try.
    The nature of addictions was an interesting theme. Kym’s obvious addictions were only one level. The father’s addiction to food – and passive/aggressive control. was another. Even more, his addiction to affection was troubling. Rachel’s own character could have used a little more attention, for she too had some deep seated addictions.
    Yours was a great review Nell. I appreciate the way you encouraged Michael to work with his parents. This was one of those funky wierd films that stays with you.

  5. Thanks so much for these insights. The movie stayed in my thoughts for many days after seeing it. I did like the music and thought it was interesting that there was no soundtrack separate from what was going on on screen — every note we hear comes from the practice sessions and performances of the characters in this very musical family. Like you, I wanted to know more about the groom (and the actor who played him). But not knowing was a part of the messiness I described; just as in real life not everything is presented to you in a linear, dossier-like manner with the typical movie “reveals.”

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