Rachel Getting Married Dir. Jonathan Demme

[Sony Pictures Classics/Clinica Estetico; 2008]

Here is Anne Hathaway as you’ve never seen her before: not glamorous and one-dimensional, but raw and complex as a former drug addict and "home wrecker." Part Margot at the Wedding and part Festen, director Jonathan Demme’s latest focuses on the events that transpire in and around Rachel’s (Rosemarie Dewitt) wedding. Hathaway plays Kym, Rachel's sister, who serves as the initiator and truth-teller, and like Mike Leigh’s film Secrets and Lies, this fervent attention to truth is what both unites the family and threatens to tear them apart. Indeed, Demme uses the wedding as a means to explore the complexities of their relationships and how they cope with both pain and joy.

Rachel Getting Married adheres to many of the strict film techniques outlined in the Dogme 95 Manifesto, which was designed by directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg to counteract the overwrought and flashy Hollywood aesthetic. Although the blurriness and shakiness from the hand-held camera may initially be distracting and off-putting (some people in the theater actually yelled at the organizers to focus and fix the film), it also mimics the chaos and uncertainty in Kym’s life after she is granted a temporary leave from her stint in rehab for Rachel’s wedding. It feels somewhat like a homemade movie, which is perfect for a plot that centers around familial relationships and both the triumphs and tragedies a family inherits over time. Even the credits at the beginning of the film are wonderfully simplistic — just white script on a black background.

That said, Rachel Getting Married can sometimes feel too polished and harmonious for these filming and editing techniques to truly pack the punch of a film like Vinterberg's Festen, which is also about dark family secrets and interracial marriage. And it's also predictable. It's as if Demme tries so hard to avoid clichés and convention that, ironically, the painstaking inclusion of so many unconventional details comes off as equally hackneyed. In a film like this, it's hardly surprising that the bridesmaids are wearing saris or that “Pachelbel's Canon” is set to electric guitar (played by Demme’s son, Brooklyn). And is a 5-minute scene in which the father challenges his new son-in-law to a contest to see who can better load the dishwasher (while the whole wedding party looks on in rapt attention) really necessary?

Despite capable performances by Hathaway and Dewitt and a laudable effort by Demme, Rachel may just be both too dark and aesthetically challenging for the general public and too clichéd and saccharine for indie film snobs. Sure, the Academy has been known to doll out Oscar nominations for actors who are willing to take hair and makeup risks and play unsavory characters, but will Hathaway's unkempt haircut, rough manners, psychotic tendencies, and quick tongue be enough to make us forget that her claim to fame was her breakthrough role as Princess Mia in the Disney film The Princess Diaries? Can they counteract the gritty camera aesthetic, clichés, and lackluster plot line? Rachel Getting Married is certainly a welcome alternative to the standard Hollywood blockbuster, but it ultimately fails to do anything truly groundbreaking.

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