DVD Release Date:  March 10, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  November 7, 2008
Rating:  R (for strong language and sexual content)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  113 min.
Director:  Jonathan Demme
Cast:  Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Debra Winger, Anna Deavere Smith, Anisa George, Tunde Adebimpe, Mather Zickel

There are few faults with Rachel Getting Married, but two of them you should know up front (though they have little to do with the actual movie):  its title is vaguely misleading and the TV ads are borderline deceptive.  Based on those alone, one might assume this is a feel-good dramedy with an indie vibe.  It’s not, by a long shot, so don’t let false expectations spoil what is, in truth, one of the most intense depictions of familial conflict since Ordinary People.

Set in the confines of a weekend wedding, Rachel Getting Married is a searing portrait of dysfunction and addiction (and how one begets the other), yet it never flashes back to past traumas or depicts actual drug use.  Rather, we witness the destructive fruit that tragedy and addiction bear, both personally and relationally.  It is a frank and confrontational depiction that may offend, but this integrity to truth is vital.  People who hope to overcome their addictions must face them honestly, and so too must a film that grapples with the same issues and their causes.

Kym Buchman (Anne Hathaway) is the black sheep, and she comes to her sister Rachel’s wedding straight from rehab.  A junkie since her teen years, Kym has brought mostly grief to a family that has endured much, including a divorce.  A narcissist with a flair for the dramatic, Kym thrives by creating drama wherever she goes.  It’s more habitual than willful at this point, so she ends up causing problems even when she’s trying not to.

Rachel, on the other hand, is the complete opposite.  Fun, stable, and pursuing a career in psychology, Rachel has been the family’s rock.  She always makes good decisions even as Kym’s ego and instability cause her to make bad ones.  Their parents unwittingly contribute to Kym’s problems with their own neuroses (the dad enables and excuses while the mom represses).

Try as she might, Rachel’s patience is never rewarded as Kym’s old dysfunctional habits die hard.  Indeed, they come to life at the most awkward times and then feed on themselves as they threaten to destroy the entire weekend.

The power of Jenny Lumet’s screenplay and Jonathan Demme’s direction is that everything is character-driven, evolving from the organic interchange and psychological stasis of these individuals and their pasts, not plot-driven to where they’re merely caricatured pawns in situational conflicts that Lumet has manufactured.

In fact, much of the film’s first act involves little overt conflict; instead, surface exchanges are loaded with subtext, psychosis, and unspoken histories.  Slowly, hints of friction emerge as emotional explosions are kept (mostly) at bay.  But eventually it all comes to a head in a “cover-your-eyes” moment of discomforting tension when Kym toasts Rachel at the pre-wedding dinner.  Issues are finally brought out in the open as things only get worse before they get, well, not exactly better. 

Demme (an Oscar-winner for The Silence of the Lambs) edits hand-held digital video in a mix of jump cuts and extended takes, creating a raw aesthetic perfectly suited for the material.  It all flows with a loose naturalism, yet Demme is clearly directing everything toward a specific tone and purpose.  It’s rather telling that while he avoids cinematic tricks or polish, Demme nevertheless creates palpable stress and drama.  This movie isn’t going to win any technical awards, but man, you feel it.