Trapped somewhere inside the nearly two hours of Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married there’s a terrific 90-minute movie screaming to get out—and it’s Demme’s fault that it’s trapped there. Normally, I not only eschew the term “self-indulgent,” I argue that it’s irrelevant when discussing personal filmmakers. But if ever a filmmaker earned the term as a pejorative, it’s Demme here. There are more friends, relatives, mentors and former subjects wandering through Rachel—rather pointlessly and often stopping the film dead in its tracks—than you can shake a stick at. (I half expected Jimmy Carter to pass through at some point.) I understand the idea—to create a genial, even festive atmosphere—but I also don’t think it works. It’s too insular, too much like being the guest at a party where you don’t know anyone and aren’t in on any of the jokes or the connections. Demme and his friends all seem to be having more fun than the viewer.
Though clearly modeled on Robert Altman’s A Wedding (1978) (in fact, Altman is acknowledged in the credits), Demme’s film is at bottom a pretty basic dysfunctional-family movie—a subgenre of which there’s never been any shortage. Whether it’s W.C. Fields in It’s a Gift (1934), the murderous chainsaw-wielding clan in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), the Firefly bunch in House of 1000 Corpses (2003) or every family in every Wes Anderson picture, it’s a staple of the movies. And it packs just that much more opportunity for conflict and fun (or mayhem) if the tale is set at a family holiday—Home for the Holidays (1995), The Family Stone (2005) etc.—or some other occasion—A Wedding, Rumor Has It (2005). It provides a potentially rich canvas—and it does so here.
First-time screenwriter Jenny Lumet (Sidney Lumet’s daughter) has crafted a workable—and occasionally very good—screenplay for Demme’s film, though it’s one that needed serious pruning. The characterizations are sharp and insightful where they need to be, and they’re shrewdly vague where that works better. Much of the dialogue is bright; some of it is very moving. The completely unforced sense of a world in which multiracial and multicultural relationships are the norm is refreshingly portrayed (though one might wonder how there seem to be no same-sex relationships in this enormous gathering of extended families). At the same time, Lumet is too hooked on minutiae—as witness a pointless scene involving a dishwasher-loading competition—and way too in love with her characters. And by extension, so is Demme. There’s an interminable rehearsal dinner that insists on presenting every speech anyone cares to make—no matter how dull. It’s very nearly as bad as sitting through a real rehearsal dinner—worse, perhaps, since we don’t get to eat.
Reservations to one side, much of the film does work. The central conflict between the bride, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt, TV’s The United States of Tara), and her recovering drug-addict sister, Kym (Anne Hathaway), is very well observed from every angle. Anne Hathaway starts off the film on an awkward note affecting a snotty Ally Sheedy accent (is there any other kind?), but soon discards it to give the kind of solid performance many of us felt she was capable of from the beginning of her career. Her incarnation of the self-flagellating addict hiding behind a facade of attitude is spot-on. She never asks for audience sympathy, and as a result gets perhaps more of it than she should. The interplay between Kym and Rachel, between Kym and her father (Bill Irwin, Across the Universe), between Kym and her somewhat distant mother (Debra Winger) are painful in their realism.
But the unfortunate thing about the film remains. Demme has filled it with inessentials that drag out an already editing-needy screenplay to an impossible length. Is there some good reason for Roger Corman to show up to do nothing? Do we really need to stop dead for songs? Demme is a generally shrewd filmmaker who knows when to let a movie step outside itself in a quirky manner—see Something Wild (1986), Married to the Mob (1988), the woefully unappreciated The Truth About Charlie (2002)—but he hasn’t done that here. Where in the earlier works his digressions made me smile, here they made me groan. The result is a sometimes-brilliant film that can barely stand under the weight of its self-inflicted festoonery of doo-daddery. Rated R for language and brief sexuality.