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by Jonathan Demme (Director)
Sony Pictures Classics, 2009
Review by Christian Perring on May 12th 2009

Rachel Getting Married

Rachel Getting Married is an unusual film directed by Jonathan Demme.  Rachel is in her thirties and she is getting married.  Her younger sister Kym is getting out of rehab just in time for the wedding.  Their parents are divorced, and there is plenty of tension between the sisters and with their parents.  Yet it is also a very liberal and artistic Connecticut family, with friends such as Fab 5 Freddy, Sister Carol, and Robyn Hitchcock who come to the wedding and sing afterwards.  The weekend starts with Rachel's return; she immediately goes to a 12-Step meeting, and the family has a rehearsal dinner in the evening.  The next day there's preparation for the multicultural ceremony, which happens in the evening, at the family house.  A group of musicians play in the background all through the weekend, with a large group of family and friends celebrating together.  After the ceremony, people dance through the night. 

The great strength of the film is its exploration of the feelings and of each of the family members on Kym's return from rehab.  She has hurt them all, let them down and lied to them, and so it is very difficult for them to trust her.  She is angry at her status of being an addict and an outcast.  As the story unfolds, we find that her little brother died when she was meant to be in charge of him, while she was high.  So she feels enormous guilt and while everyone says it was an accident, it is also clear that her mother can barely talk to her.  Her father seems a pale shadow of the man he had been previously, no longer able to deal directly with others, and her relationship with Rachel is very complicated and difficult.  The rest of the family and the other guests have to tiptoe around Rachel hoping that she will not cause a scene.  The pain experienced by Rachel, Kym and their parents is subtly portrayed with strong performances all around by a strong cast. 

The style of direction is spontaneous, with a good deal of improvisation from the script. The two commentaries and other interviews on the DVD explain how Demme set up a wedding celebration in the house for a weekend and told his actors to keep in role for the whole time.  Many of the scenes were done in just a few takes, and some just in one.  There are continuity problems from one edit to another because of the quick shooting which are glaring when you are looking for them, but which you don't notice most of the time because the dialog holds your attention.  However, despite the apparently free-form nature of much of the acting and all the hand-held camera work, the performances and direction are very stylized.  It doesn't feel like one is watching a documentary, but rather one is watching actors working hard to fully realize their characters.  Viewing many scenes is like being a voyeur at an improvisation workshop. 

For the most part, Demme's work here is remarkable and memorable, giving us a distinctive view of addiction and how blame and guilt work in families.  My main reservation is that the movie has a self-indulgent hip celebrity insider feel to it.  The script is by Jenny Lumet, daughter of the great director Sidney Lumet, and in addition to the famous musicians playing at the wedding, Rachel's finance Sidney is played by Tunde Adebimpe, the lead singer of the band TV on the Radio.  The tumultuous feeling of the weekend, with Rachel's uptight and neurotic New England white family coming together with Sidney's diverse black family for the first time along his many musician friends is a theme enough for a movie, with race and class being important themes.  To lay on top of that the themes of addiction, rehabilitation, and a child's death makes the movie quite crowded and messy, especially in its emotional tones.  Having musicians play themselves and so much improvisation further blurs the line between the drama and real life, and this bleeds into one's reaction to the different actors.  It is hard to forget that it is Ann Hathaway playing Kym or that Debra Winger is playing her mother.  It also becomes hard to separate one's feelings of annoyance with the characters from a sense of annoyance with the actors. 

This reservation was increased after watching the movie twice more with the two commentaries and then the "Making of" featurette and a live interview with many involved in making the film, in which all speakers spent most of the time congratulating each other over the power of their work.  It is one of the few times when I have regretted watching the extras on a DVD, although it is interesting to learn about how the film was made, especially in regard to shooting the two 12-Step meetings that Kym attends. 

Even with this reservation, Rachel Getting Married is one of the best representations of the effects of addiction and family dysfunction in the movies.  Most films that address the issue tend to be very heavy handed -- think of The Lost Weekend or Leaving Las Vegas -- so this is a striking departure in style.  I will use it in undergraduate classes to raise some of the ethical questions that come with families dealing with addiction.

© 2009 Christian Perring

Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.