Hathaway plays Kym, the prodigal daughter home from rehab for the wedding of her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). Kym is a former star of some kind--the details are never made clear--and she has the self-dramatizing narcissism to prove it. Her speech at the rehearsal dinner is an exercise in egoism, an extended riff on the trials of her addiction and ongoing recovery--and, oh yes, Rachel, sorry for having been such a crappy sister all these years. Dad (Bill Irwin) has a tendency to indulge such theatrics, which gradually threaten to overwhelm the nuptial proceedings. And there is a still darker family tragedy lurking in the background, a scar that will eventually be revealed and prodded.
Plenty of films have been made from such elements, but most have not been made with such care. For starters, Rachel Getting Married has the sense to recognize that it only takes one lunatic to throw a family gathering out of kilter; this is not an exercise in competitive crazy like last year’s irritating Margot at the Wedding. Moreover, with the exception of one scene in which a dinner plate conjures bitter memories, the filmmakers rarely overdo it; there are moments that push toward extremes (the rehearsal-dinner speech is a good example), but then pull back, taking their cues from real life rather than cinema. The direction, by veteran Jonathan Demme, has an unfussy vérité feel; the script, by newcomer Jenny Lumet, is spare and thoughtful. (As the daughter of Sidney Lumet, granddaughter of Lena Horne, and ex-sister-in-law of P.J. O’Rourke, one imagines she knows what it’s like to have big personalities around the house.)
Does Hathaway deserve the heavy Oscar buzz she’s already receiving? Well, she doesn’t not deserve it--she gives a very fine performance--but it’s hard not to view this as another example of critics going gaga over a glamorous actress in an unglamorous role. (Hello Julia, Halle, Nicole, Charlize.) I confess that the performance I found most compelling was DeWitt’s Rachel, the straight woman to Hathaway’s maniac. DeWitt had a small role in “Mad Men” as one of Don Draper’s early conquests; here’s hoping there are bigger things yet to come. I’d also be remiss not to point out that Debra Winger is terrific in a smaller role as the sisters’ semi-estranged Mom.
Rachel Getting Married is often a difficult film to watch--persuasive portraits of family dysfunction generally are--but it does offer a spoon-, or perhaps, shovel-ful of sugar to help the medicine go down, by putting on perhaps the most elaborately multi-culti Bobo wedding ever committed to celluloid, a festival of singing and dancing and costumery featuring Robyn Hitchcock, Sister Carol East, and a groom (TV on the Radio vocalist Tunde Adebimpe) who sings Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend” to his bride at the altar. Depending on your own politico-cultural inclinations, you may wish to respond to this extravaganza by imitating it or by voting a straight Republican ticket. In either case, try to restrain yourself.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.