Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married, from a screenplay by Jenny Lumet, condenses many of the key preoccupations of a three-decade directorial career that is better-known for its less personal The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Oscar-aspirant Philadelphia (1993) examples, or even for its inexplicable remakes - The Truth About Charlie (2002) and The Manchurian Candidate (2004) - than for its more accomplished and integral Melvin and Howard (1980) and Something Wild (1986), or for his assured cycle of concert films, including Talking Heads instantiation Stop Making Sense (1984). Thus, to rephrase slightly, Rachel Getting Married condenses Demme at his best - a Demme that is all-to-often not on view.
Shot on hand-held DV by frequent collaborator Declan Quinn, Rachel Getting Married follows sister-of-the-bride Kym (Anne Hathaway) as she returns to her southwestern Connecticut home for the marriage of big sis Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) to musician Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe). With Kym in rehab as the film commences, Demme and Lumet's narrative gradually discloses the traumatic underpinnings of her chemical use, which she has kept under control for the previous nine months. In one of the first scenes following her somewhat ambivalent reunion with Rachel, Kym clumsily enters a mandated twelve-step meeting where she unknowingly crosses paths with best man to be Kieran (Mather Zickel). Though Kieran and Kym will shortly engage in a romantic tryst, the primary dramatic upside of their coupling becomes the revelation that Rachel has chosen best friend Emma (Anisa George) as her maid of honor.
It is indeed the estranged bonds of Rachel and Kym's broken nuclear family that will provide much of the film's melodramatic grist, just as it is the wedding's preparations and ceremonies that account equally for its unmistakable texture. Set in a communal-minded, multi-racial milieu, the WASPy girls' frigid interactions introduce dissonance into Demme's utopia. Musicians are constantly rehearsing, vows are delivered in a Capella (in Neil Young lyrics - recall Neil Young: Heart of Gold, 2006), and Robyn Hitchcock (Storefront Hitchcock, 1998) makes an appearance at the wedding reception. In other words this a very Demme-ian utopia, brought to life with the songs and the performers that have populated the director's documentary sidebar.
Moreover, the synthetic quality of the ceremonies' cultural sources strongly mark this as (good) Demme territory. Whereas Something Wild provided one of the templates for generic inter-mixture in the American cinema, along with the work of fellow post-modernist Jim Jarmusch, Rachel Getting Married's combine occurs on the level of culture, incorporating jazz, Brazilian percussion and South Asian dress into the bi-racial ceremony. Obviously a taste for any of the above is by no means a criticism, though their artificial applications, especially in the very current if altogether arbitrary interest in India, is. Demme has always been cool - after all Something Wild does feature The Feelies - for better or for worse.
This worse comes in on the level of Rachel Getting Married's inauthenticity. Make no mistake, to say that the film features inauthenticity is not to say that it is inauthentic, even if Demme seems to endorse the values his picture espouses. This is a real world of real people who share the same artificiality. Theirs is a world immured from the stresses of finance or class, where a utopianism can be practiced between outbursts of bourgeois self-distruction. Contrary to those critics who have professed their desire to attend a wedding like the film's, this piece's writers were more irritated than envious.
Yet, none of the above is to argue that Rachel Getting Married is anything other than a good film. Whatever one may feel of Demme's calculated cool, the director does know the world he inhabits, and one suspects, the people with whom he associates. The film's politics may suffer from streaks of the utopian and the self-congratulatory, but Rachel Getting Married nonetheless wears its ethos, from the aforesaid cultural pluralism to the touchingly expressed wish that a soldier come home soon, lightly and with grace. There is a life to Demme's film, whatever its shallowness.