Perfect union

Jonathan Demme goes vérité, coaxes out great performances in new film

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There's no way your wedding comes close to being as cool as the union hipper-than-thou matrimonial concoction director Jonathan Demme serves up in Rachel Getting Married. First of all, Robyn Hitchcock and Sister Carol East probably did not serenade your guests. Then, of course, there's the rainbow coalition of family and partygoers, cross-cultural cuisine, vast crowd of literates, musicians and hipsters and Indian-influenced wedding garb. Even Rachel's groom-to-be is played by TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe. Oh, and it all happens in that hotbed of cultural enlightenment, Connecticut — in one of those impossibly cinematic but clearly lived-in Victorian homes with a giant porch and enough property to make real estate developers choke.

Yet, it sorta works, because Demme has gone Dogme. Sorta. Trading longtime collaborator Tak Fujimoto for cinematographer Declan Quinn — who shot the director's excellent documentary, Jimmy Carter, Man from Plains — Demme takes a roving hand-held cinema verité approach that not only makes you feel embedded in the festivities but reveals keenly observed moments. It's reminiscent of Thomas Vinterberg's brilliant psychodrama Celebration — but with a suburban middlebrow sensibility. At first, the whole affair feels affected and contrived, like an elaborate Altman-esque acting exercise in the guise of a cooler-than-cool party. But something happens along the way; the actors — especially Hathaway — create an intimate and spontaneously intriguing character study that sneaks up on you. Everyone is so good and so real that their emotions have the kind of raw, off-balance tinge that'd make John Cassavetes proud.

Sprung from rehab for the weekend, Kym (Anne Hathaway) heads home to attend her sister's (Mad Men's Rosemarie DeWitt) wedding. As you'd guess, the sibs love each other despite tons of baggage, not the least of which is Kym's history of addiction. Dad (Bill Irwin) worries and frets while trying to keep everyone happy for the big day. Their divorced mom (Debra Winger) stays away as much as humanly possible. Needless to say, a past family tragedy looms in the shadows, ready to emotionally blindside everyone. From visits to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting (where she spies the best man) to a self-obsessed rehearsal dinner toast, Kym's personal dramas intrude on every corner of the wedding. She's abrasive, petulant, funny and, miraculously, sympathetic.

As both a test and celebration of family bonds, Rachel Getting Married earns the lump it puts in your throat, even if screenwriter Jenny Lumet (daughter of film lion Sidney) relies on the tried and true death of a child to get it.

Hathaway's fierce, self-loathing performance makes you care about what should've been a wholly unsympathetic character. Contrast that with Nicole Kidman's turn in Noah Baumbach's insufferable Margot at the Wedding and you realize the acting feat she's pulled off. It's an Oscar-worthy performance.

Of course, it helps to have such a sensitive director as Demme at the helm, choosing to make clear that beneath all the emotional turmoil is the inexorable undercurrent of love, and that love sometimes isn't enough. Except for a single unconvincing scene in a hair salon, he keeps a strong hand on the melodrama, focusing instead on the small touches that convey the characters' shared pain and affection. Yes, there are outbursts and confrontations, but Demme lets them evolve naturally, letting the nuances build up until they explode.

The rest of the cast is similarly terrific, particularly DeWitt and Winger, who make clear the roiling emotions their characters have been pushing aside for years. Both deserve Best Supporting Actress nods.

There's no doubt Demme's film is messy. It goes on 15 minutes too long and lingers, torturously at times, too much on the wedding party. It's a minor film after a decade of minor works (he hasn't done a weighty feature since 1998's Beloved), but Demme brings 35 years of filmmaking prowess to his off-the-cuff style and the result is a surprisingly moving account of profound loss and hard-fought reconciliation. Rachel Getting Married may get bogged down at times with staged verisimilitude, but when it hits, it hits with bracing sincerity, honesty and humanity.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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