The last we saw of beloved indie director Jonathan Demme, he was off investing his time in a string of personality-driven documentaries (The Agronomist, Neil Young: Heart of Gold, Jimmy Carter Man From Plains) ... oh, and that ill-advised remake of The Manchurian Candidate ... oh, and that even more ill-advised remake of Charade. So it is with a sense of comfort and relief that longtime fans find Mr. Demme returning to his low-budget indie film roots with the low-key dramedy Rachel Getting Married.
The film harks back to the days of John Cassavetes, when all it took for a New Yorker to make a movie was a camera, a bunch of actor/
Hathaway tackles her most demanding role to date as Kym, a former child model who emerges from rehab long enough to attend her older sister’s wedding in upscale, rural Connecticut. Hathaway—a likable, doe-eyed ingenue in films like The Devil Wears Prada and Get Smart—has barely ever hinted at the sort of depth she demonstrates here. Self-centered, substance-abusing drama queen Kym is clearly the dark horse of the family, and no one quite knows how to deal with her sudden appearance. Dad Paul (Irwin, who some may recognize as Mr. Noodle from “Sesame Street”) responds by becoming overprotective. Sister Rachel (DeWitt, who some may recognize from the first season of “Mad Men”) responds by fighting with her every chance she gets.
Structurally, tonally and titularly, Rachel Getting Married steers dangerously close to Noah Baumbach’s miserably failed outing Margot at the Wedding. Thankfully, the film distinguishes itself in ways that Margot simply couldn’t. For starters, Demme is anything but a cynic. Rachel is a dark film, dealing with a lot of deep-seated emotions, but the director clearly has an affection for each and every one of these characters. What could have been a dreary outing in dysfunctional family dynamics is enlivened by Demme’s ultimately upbeat demeanor.
Much of the film’s humor comes from the discomfort of its situations. Kym’s impromptu rehearsal dinner toast, for example, goes from self-effacing to self-immolating in a heartbeat. But Demme can’t bring himself to condemn anyone here. Everyone has their good and bad sides, and the film allows each to shine through. At least the characters mean well. That doesn’t prevent them from hurting one another, but there are no villains in this story.
There are those who will find the pacing here slow and measured. Demme pushes his characters to the background on many occasions, allowing Rachel’s wedding (a crazy, multicultural affair filled with jewel-toned saris, jazz musicians and samba bands) to simply unfold in real time. But Demme has an ironclad grip on the rhythms of human drama. There are moments when people are expected to burst into tears and recriminations over long-repressed sibling rivalry and unresolved parental issues. There are also moments when such high drama is inappropriate. Nothing that happens in Rachel Getting Married feels artificial or forced. Even the characters’ backstories emerge organically, seemingly out of the woodwork of their sprawling suburban manse. (Kym’s background as a child model, for example, is mentioned only once, in passing—but it explains a lot about who she was and what she’s become.)
Those hoping for the light touch of Demme’s earliest works (Caged Heat, Citizen’s Band, Melvin and Howard, Something Wild) might be confused. There’s humor here, but no real punch lines. Though operating off a screenplay by first-time writer Jenny Lumet (daughter to Sidney), the actors all feel like they’ve been invited to a party and asked to simply “be themselves.” (The fact that Kym and Rachel’s dad is a successful record producer gives Demme as good an excuse as any to invite all his musician friends to perform.) Energized by this improvisational framework and a handheld digital camera, Demme shoots fast and loose. It’s almost as if the guy signed up for a belated Dogme 95 film. Whatever the impetus, the result is a work of art that might feel inconsequential to some but to fans of Demme will read like the filmmaker is back in peak form.