Sweeping the Oscars with The Silence of the Lambs was the worst thing that ever happened to Jonathan Demme. Overnight, a director whose forte had been goofy, humane quasi-comedies like Melvin and Howard and Something Wild metamorphosed into an earnest, prestige-addled bore. He took on AIDS (Philadelphia). He adapted another great novel (Beloved). He remade classics (Charade as The Truth About Charlie, The Manchurian Candidate). By last year, when his name turned up on a hagiographic Jimmy Carter documentary, longtime Demme fans had all but given up hope. Certainly we were unprepared for Rachel Getting Married, which—if not exactly the return to classic Demme we’d craved—is still far and away the richest and most vital movie he’s made in two decades. An emotionally wrenching family melodrama with a uniquely paradoxical tone, at once utopian and despairing, it ranks easily among the year’s best films. But more than that, it’s reassuring evidence that one of America’s best filmmakers yet lives.
Actually, another great American director indirectly contributed to this triumph, since the screenplay was written by Jenny Lumet, daughter of Sidney (Dog Day Afternoon, Network). Its emphasis isn’t on impending bride Rachel (Mad Men’s Rosemarie DeWitt) but on her sister, Kym (Anne Hathaway), a recovering addict who’s released from rehab to attend the nuptials. Arriving at the family’s sprawling New England home, Kym immediately sets about stealing everyone’s focus, usurping the maid-of-honor position from Rachel’s best friend (Anisa George) and turning her rehearsal-dinner toast into a mortifying apologia that comes across like self-justification. Tempers flare, joyous announcements are employed as weapons, and the tragedy nobody wants to talk about inevitably gets dragged into the open, even as preparations for the big day continue. Not since Ingmar Bergman in his prime has a family waged such vicious yet loving war.
Part of what seems to have liberated Demme here is his uncharacteristic use of the urgent, handheld, fast-cutting style associated with the Dogme 95 movement. (Indeed, Rachel Getting Married frequently calls to mind Dogme’s high-water mark, The Celebration.) Shot with lightweight digital-video cameras, the film is never terribly pleasant to look at—the images are muddy, indistinct—but Demme catches the actors at their least self-conscious, creating a naturalistic, Altman-esque ensemble for Kym to bulldoze her anxious way through. Hathaway is getting most of the attention, and she is indeed a revelation, performing a heartbreakingly credible concerto of neediness and self-absorption. But equally fine are Bill Irwin as Kym’s adorably ineffective father, Debra Winger (she lives, too!) as her glacially cold mother and especially newcomer DeWitt as the eminently sensible yet childishly aggrieved bride, who’s justifiably afraid that she may wind up being ignored on the most important day of her life.
And then there’s the groom, Sidney, played by TV on the Radio lead singer Tunde Adebimpe. Sidney is African-American—as is Anna Deavere Smith, who plays Kym and Rachel’s stepmother, Carol—and a few critics consider it a flaw that the movie refuses to make a big deal out of this, treating it as if it were so mundane as not to merit even the slightest comment. These naysayers are also put off by the wedding itself, at which the bridesmaids wear saris, the cake is decorated with Hindu elephants, and a troupe of samba dancers, along with Sister Carol East and Robyn Hitchcock, entertain the guests. Yeah, it’s a bit over the top, but it’s also precisely the tension between this utopian vision and the harrowing drama that threatens to corrode it at every turn that makes Rachel Getting Married so unbearably moving. And it’s also, arguably, the perfect film with which to usher in a Barack Obama presidency.