An authentic oddity, Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married gets great mileage out of the tensions between screenwriter Jenny Lumet’s desire to spin another uninspired suburban-dysfunction story (with a score of Diablo Cody witticisms thrown in) and the director’s inclination to transform the material into something far more rewarding. The film’s dreary opening scenes, which find recovering addict Kym (Anne Hathaway) leaving rehab to attend her sister’s wedding and detail her reintegration into the family’s sprawling Connecticut spread, establish Lumet’s shopworn milieu, but as filmed by Demme and DP Declan Quinn in close handheld shots, the staging takes on a disorienting texture that largely defamiliarizes the material’s known quantities and, if not exactly recasting them into anything particularly new, at least goes some way toward offsetting the screenplay’s air of drab conventionality.
Demme’s real concerns, however, come to light in the first of a series of set pieces that do minimal work in advancing the narrative but serve to group the film’s diverse cast together for a round of warmhearted camaraderie. No sooner has the director introduced the principal players and set up the slate of familial conflicts—sibling resentments between the two sisters, a dark secret in Kym’s past—then he gathers the entire wedding party around the dining room table for a round of toasts. Bringing together an African-American musician family and a white professional household, the film is perhaps a little too meticulous about making sure every race is represented (the groom is given a close Asian friend, the father-of-the-bride a Latina girlfriend), but the genuine good feelings that flow between the guests seem mostly unforced and, serving as a corrective to the affected miserabilism promised by the film’s opening sequences, are never unwelcome. When Kym interrupts the proceedings to make a self-obsessed speech about absolution, the film’s insipid narrative concerns make a brief return, but it’s not long before Demme has broken away again to reunite his diverse clan in celebratory union.
Demme seems almost perverse in the way he allows established narrative threads to linger unresolved, as if he’s felt obligated to follow the screenplay but only to a certain point and then, bored by the conventional situations he’s inherited, simply abandons them. Kym’s provided with a brief romantic interest, a fellow rehabber who turns out to be the groom’s best man, but after the couple’s initial sexual congress, the relationship is completely dropped from the narrative. Then, once the two sisters reach an impasse in their feuding with an ugly screaming match at the film’s midpoint, Demme refuses to further develop their relationship, returning to the conflict only to grant the two women a brief and cursory reconciliation that barely registers amid the surrounding celebration that dominates the picture’s conclusion.
But who really has time for such niceties of character development? Certainly not Demme, who’d rather stage a wedding. With only the occasional narrative intrusion, the final sequence is one of the more joyous nuptials captured on film. From the appealingly informal ceremony with its new-age inflections—and interlaced with cutaway shots to a genuinely moved Hathaway—to a series of generically varied musical performances during the reception (Demme’s commitment to cultural diversity means the guests perform in rock, folk, jazz and R&B modes), the wedding finds the director taking control of his film and imbuing it with the celebratory warmth that comes from a genuine embrace of democratic plurality.
Jumping from the dreariness of the familial drama to the good cheer of the concluding ceremony proves more than a little jarring, but the tensions inherent in the film’s split personality work in its favor. Demme may not be after a seamless perfection, but he manages to forge an inviting filmic space from the most unlikely of materials and open it up to the viewer’s ecstatic participation. After the wedding, the picture more or less ends, but if we’re denied the expected narrative resolution, we’re left with something far more satisfying: the sense of having been included in the filmmaker’s generous embrace of humanity.