Trio of actresses powers Demme's family drama

Posted: October 17, 2008

According to the rules, tragedy ends in death and comedy in marriage. Yet while Rachel Getting Married - Jonathan Demme's superb rule-bending, heartrending and family-mending drama - ends with a wedding, it resists conventions as brazenly as does the bride's sister.

Rachel (the astonishing Rosemarie DeWitt of Mad Men) is the one getting hitched over a Connecticut weekend. Kym, her self-absorbed and self-loathing sibling (comparably astonishing Anne Hathaway), on weekend furlough from drug rehab, is the one elbowing her way into the spotlight.

First, Kym demands that she get upgraded from bridesmaid to maid of honor, deposing Rachel's best friend. Then, at the rehearsal dinner, Kym turns her toast to the bride and groom into a self-pity party. And then . . . well, you'll have to watch her up the emotional ante in this high-stakes contest. For most of the invited, the guests of honor are Rachel and Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe). But for Kym, it's all about her. You can see the resignation in Rachel's eyes. Sisters. Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em, can't kill 'em.

Working from a script by Jenny Lumet (actress and spawn of writer Gail Lumet Buckley and filmmaker Sidney Lumet), Demme choreographs a mostly accomplished ensemble to make his fiercest and most deeply satisfying film since Something Wild.

The bride is Caucasian, the groom African American, and the wedding theme Indian. Rachel originally was titled Dancing With Shiva - a reference to the Hindu deity of destruction and transformation. Perhaps that was because Kym is a human nuclear device, scattering bombs of rage as a flower girl strews rose petals, turning the leafy grounds of her father's Colonial into a war zone, shushing the troubadours on hand to play at the ceremony.

Eyes black-rimmed and sunken, Kym is the rabid raccoon that upsets the garbage cans and crashes the multi-culti party. As is so often the case in family feuds, one woman's garbage is another's precious keepsake; one man's feelings another's hissy fit.

Why are the apparently balanced Rachel and the evidently unstable Kym at odds? Demme and Lumet count the ways. They fight over the love of their embracing father, Paul (Bill Irwin). Over the attention of their estranged mother, Abby (Debra Winger). Over whose version of family dysfunction is the authoritative one.

Working with nimble cinematographer Declan Quinn and his handheld camera, Demme approaches this emotional minefield with delicacy and tact. Like the fly on the wall, he does not take sides, but takes in the many dramas behind the obvious drama of two people and their families coming together - and the troublemaker who could drive them apart.

Hathaway jettisons her ingenue tricks - the wide-eyed stare, the coy pout, the mane toss - to create a bristling, restless character who in the hands of a less empathic director would be written off as the death of the party. Over the course of the film, Kym pushes upstream to find the source of her river of pain, to let it flow and let it go. DeWitt, in the more sympathetic but no less complex part, is likewise a revelation, selfless, selfish, tolerant and pitiless - and as full of love as Kym is full of hate.

Winger is heartstopping, owning every scene she is in including a knockout one with Hathaway. Alas, Irwin, the gifted mime and dancer, is not in the same league as the actresses (who include Anna Deavere Smith, as Paul's second wife).

The events leading up to the wedding are as rich and tough and dramatic as anything in American movies, owing an acknowledged debt to the work of Robert Altman. Yes, Demme indulges his catholic musical tastes to the extent that it occasionally derails the drama. But for a film about an angry young woman out to pick apart her family tapestry, how profound is this story about sisters finally able to piece together their common threads. Bravo to Demme, Lumet, and three extraordinary actresses.


Rachel Getting Married ***1/2 (out of four stars)

Directed by Jonathan Demme. With Bill Irwin, Anna Deavere Smith, Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, and Debra Winger. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.

Running time: 1 hour, 54 mins.

Parent's guide: R (brief sexuality, profanity)

Playing at: Ritz Five, Showcase at the Ritz/NJ


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/.

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