Movie Thoughts: Rachel Getting Married

You could make “Rachel Getting Married” into a pretty debilitating drinking game by taking a shot whenever a new religious symbol or ethnic group shows up onscreen. The wedding incorporates everything from a blue Genesh wedding cake, to a Hendrix-like rendition of “Here Comes the Bride,” to belly-dancers at the reception. I tried for a while to figure out what spiritual background these people represented (my best guess was Baha’i, mostly because I have no clue what Baha’is actually do), but the reality is that the wedding was basically assembled based on its entertainment value. 

The two people getting married are Rachel (Rosemarie Dewitt), obviously, and Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe, singer for the band TV on the Radio), and the fact that they are an interracial couple is refreshingly never mentioned in the movie, by anyone. Like the plurality of the ceremony itself, their families have been so thoroughly assimilated into the cultural melting pot that no one seems to care about the color of anyone’s skin, or to even notice. 

That’s not to say that the wedding is a tension-free affair, however. Kym (Anne Hathaway), Rachel’s sister, is released from a rehab center a few days before the wedding and shows up with a trunkload of familial baggage in tow. Much of this is revealed in a rambling confessional monologue Kym delivers at the rehearsal dinner, a scene that forced me to reassess what Hathaway is capable of as an actress. She has played a serious role before, in “Brokeback Mountain,” but here she displays a depth and vulnerability far beyond anything I have seen from her before. 

Rachel is understandably ambivalent about Kym’s presence at her wedding; the day is about her, she believes, and her drama-queen sister will only draw attention away from her and generally bring everyone down. In most movies, this is the point where Kym would whip out her pouty heart of gold and show everyone just how lovable she really is. In “Rachel Getting Married,” though, Kym does want to be present for the wedding, but she is also an attention-seeking recovering addict who has been institutionalized for so long she has largely forgotten how to be around normal people. 

The greatest strength of “Rachel Getting Married” comes from its willingness to allow so many of its characters to have competing interests and points of view. An easy writing trap to fall into is focus solely on one character’s perspective and only define the other characters as far as it is necessary to advance the main character’s story. “Rachel,” though, provides space for Rachel, Kym, their divorced parents (Bill Irwin and Debra Winger), and even some of their friends to have their own voice. The documentary shooting style of the film also contributes to the “lived in” sense of the characters by showing their minor reactions as well as their major close-ups. I felt like these characters could be real people, an impression I never had during another recent dysfunctional family wedding movie, Noah Baumbach’s “Margot At the Wedding.”

Strangely, “Rachel Getting Married” spends very little time getting to know Sidney and his family. We learn that Sidney’s brother has recently returned from Iraq, but little backstory is given to anyone beyond that. Even Sidney himself remains essentially undefined. I think he is a musician of some kind, but that comes more from the fact that most of his friends are singers and performers than from anything he does himself. He does incorporate Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend” into his wedding vows–one of the best moments of levity in the movie–but Adebimpe is not given much responsibility as an actor beyond that. Some critics have even seen a kind of reverse racism in the lack of family dysfunction in Sidney’s family compared to Rachel’s. 

The soundtrack of “Rachel Getting Married” is primarily supplied by Sidney’s visiting musician friends, who seem to be jamming and riffing in some part of the house throughout the entire weekend. It’s an amusing choice that enables the movie to maintain the documentary tone while also having a background score. Their performances at the rehearsal party are also one of the highlights of the movie. This probably won’t mean anything to you, but the musicians reminded me of the omnipresent animal sounds in Carl Dreyer’s “Ordet.” 

As part of Kym’s release from the rehab center, she is required to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings throughout the weekend. The automatic acceptance and lack of judgment she feels there underscores how out of step she has become with her family; addicts are the people who “get” her. I also saw a connection between the smorgasbord spirituality of the wedding and the nondescript Higher Power to whom NA members are asked to surrender. 

A final word about the style of “Rachel”: The roving camera, which at times seems to be catching only snatches of the action, works greatly to enhance the flow and drama of the movie. The performances, especially Hathaway and Dewitt’s, feel free because of it, but also carefully thought through because of the way they react against the action instead of just getting swept along in it. Kym’s exhaustion toward the end of the reception matched how I have felt at some of my friends’ weddings. It also lends the argument scenes (there are several) a sense of unpredictability and danger; you can’t pinpoint where the next comment is going to come from or who is going to say it. At times, it felt like I was really in the middle of the family reunion from hell. (That’s praise, by the way.) 

The largest weakness I found in “Rachel” comes from a chance encounter Kym has at a hair salon that triggers one of the more wrenching family arguments in the movie. Up to that point, director Jonathan Demme and first-time screenwriter Jenny Lumet (daughter of Oscar lifetime achievement award winner Sidney Lumet) had done such an effective job of bringing out the drama from the characters’ personalities that the abrupt introduction of a new character felt unnecessary and forced. On the whole, though, “Rachel Getting Married” was one of the most absorbing and involving movie experiences I’ve had in the past year.

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