You Are Cordially Invited
2008 // USA // Jonathan Demme // October 28, 2008 // Theatrical Print
B - Part discomfiting soap opera, part deliciously nasty glimpse of upper class twittery, and above all a sneaky, naturalistic celebration of music and milestones, Johnathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married is a work as far from the director's The Silence of the Lambs as one could envision. Roiling with familial angst and earnest realism, it's not a concoction that will appeal to everyone. Rachel juggles both ridiculous scenes of ugly misbehavior and helplessly sweet (and often equally ridiculous) sequences of distilled joy. That both of these elements can comfortably coexist in the same film reflects the central theme of Demme and screenwriter Jenny Lumet (yes, daughter of that Lumet): that families are both fundamentally miserable institutions and also refuges of grace and happiness. Often, as in Rachel Getting Married, in the same weekend.
Kym (Anne Hathaway) is the younger sister, a recovering drug addict released from rehab to attend her sibling Rachel's wedding. Demme sticks close to Hathaway throughout Rachel Getting Married, unspooling his tale from her caustic perspective. Hathaway is as riveting as she has ever been here, conveying Kym's interior world through her dark eyes, ragdoll neck, and a quick, snarky tongue that scuttles through the film's crawlspaces. Kym's family is a white, wealthy, liberal New England clan, full of long-ago divorces and eclectic cultural tastes. If Hathaway feels a little out of place amongst her kin and their friends, it's less because she has nothing in common with them—the Best Man, she learns, is in her Narcotics Anonymous group—than because there is an ancient bitterness at work, the source and full extent of which is only gradually revealed.
Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), in contrast, is the angel of the family, an aspiring doctor of psychology who has met the man of her dreams in Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), a barrel-chested black guy with coke-bottle glasses and a broad grin. Warm and adoring, they seem to be the most well-adjusted couple in the film. Throughout the weekend, the father of the bride, Paul (Bill Irwin), is more attentive and anxious towards Hathaway than the daughter he is marrying off. The gently aloof mother, Abby (Debra Winger), lurks around the periphery of the film, appearing late and leaving early. We meet step-parents, distant cousins, fun-loving friends, and a woolly black standard poodle with a tennis ball perpetually in its jaws. Most charmingly, a folk group wanders in and out of the frame, ostensibly the live music for the wedding, but also serving as a kind of dramatic chorus for the film. Their violins, lutes, and drums weave an omnipresent soundtrack that drifts through the windows and doorways.
Lumet's script is dense with creamy tension and unraveled, upper-class hysteria. In scenes such as Hathaway's rambling, self-absorbed toast, or Winger's clenched departure from the wedding, Lumet exhibits a fine balance between authenticity and sharp drama. The story gets a little out of hand when she and Demme attempt more lurid pyrotechnics, as in a brutal and awkwardly presented confrontation between Hathaway and Winger. It's these more cartoonish moments that vex Rachel Getting Married most significantly, and at times threaten to topple it under a burden of daytime television tawdriness. Yet one can't help but marvel at Demme's ability to treat his protagonist with such sympathy and sensitivity, while never forgiving her fundamentally unsympathetic qualities. Consider a scene where Hathaway attends a mandatory NA meeting. Nearly everything Demme has presented up to this point has highlighted her distraction and cynicism, down to her outburst of profanity as she stumbles in the door. Then he shows us snippets of members confessing their troubles and trials, and we watch Hathaway's reactions go from agitated to sorrowful. Eventually, she tearfully nods at the words of her fellow addicts, as though at a religious revival. It's a small thing, but indicative of Demme's skill: an unexpected character trait—the significant stock Kym places in the Twelves Steps—revealed in a superb manner.
Demme often backgrounds the family drama to soak in the pleasure of the spontaneous and joyous moments, and it's in these sequences that the home video look to his camera work creates the impression of a real-life wedding (fortunately minus most of the dreary banality). The director and all of his performers rally with such ease and enthusiasm around the rituals, games, and music that it's hard not to get caught up in the pleasure of it all. I dare you not to crack a smile during an ad hoc dishwasher-loading competition between father and future son-in-low—never mind how bluntly it comes to a halt—or the heartfelt toasts and songs offered up during the rehearsal dinner. Indeed, it's the film's music where Demme displays his most effusive tendencies, and reveals his pedigree in creating acclaimed concert films (Stop Making Sense, Neil Young: Heart of Gold). Although Rachel's naturalism calls to mind John Carney's Once from last year, Demme isn't concerned with creation, but with music's rapturous qualities for the listener, and the way it scores the lives of true aficionados. The families of Rachel have music in their bones, perhaps professionally, and the wedding features folk, rock, soul, hip-hop, and an entire samba band (no kidding). It's the kind of outrageous, diverse, exultant celebration that only happens in the movies, but is no less tempting for all that. Admittedly, some of the musical sequences might wear on for a bit, but it's not because they are dull, but because we're frustrated that we can't leap in and cut loose ourselves.
It's tempting to paint Rachel Getting Married as two films—a screechy soap opera on one hand, and a hangout musical on the other—but this isn't quite accurate. It's not really a schizophrenic film, any more than a family that offers both venom and love could be described in such a way. Rather, Demme lets his gaze shift slightly, finding separate vantage points from which to view the same eventful weekend. His focus on the squabbling and closeted skeletons is his concession to Hathaway's eye-of-the-storm view. His more unabashedly adoring approach to the wedding's pleasures represents a shift to an amused, omniscient observer, marveling at how such miserable people can put it all aside in a moment to drink, dance, and laugh.