Rachel Getting Married (2008)

Dir. Johnathan Demme
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Tunde Adebimpe, Debra Winger, etc.

I loved this movie. I would recommend this to other idiots, although with some caveats. Along with Be Kind, Rewind, this is my favorite film of the year.

The film is basically a slice-of-life–with emphasis on the “life” part-–perhaps my favorite of this genre, a genre I’m not enthusiastic about, so it’s surprising that I really enjoyed this as much as I did. An alternate title could have been, a wedding and a family because that’s essentially what the film is about, at least in terms of plot. Kym (Hathaway) leaves a drug rehabilitation hospital for the weekend to attend her sister, Rachel’s (DeWitt) wedding. The film depicts the last minute preparations of the wedding and the wedding itself. Along the way we see the tension and conflicts that are typical in most families, well, sort of. In a way the film is like other films about families getting together for an holiday or special occasion, like Home for the Holidays or Once Around, but what makes this film stand out is the realism and authenticity of the scenes and acting. Yes, Anne Hathaway is a very good (and probably worthy of at least a nomination), but so are the other actors (sadly, Debra Winger was the weakest link to me). The conversations just feel so real, and there’s hardly a false note. Demme also shoots the film as if a family member making home movies of the wedding, which creates a sense that we’re eavesdropping into a family party. (Demme also uses some close-ups that create a suffocating feeling, which, in retrospect, may have been appropriate for the characters.)

I want to explain the reason I liked the film so much. Basically, the film did a great job of depicting life–life as a messy mixture of joy, celebration as well as tragedy and pain. Life is a struggle with no easy answers, no easy path to healing and redemption. And the film does such a great job of portraying both sentiments in powerful and authentic ways. On the joy side, there are terrific scenes of the family and friends sharing their feelings about the bride and groom. Some say nice things, others perform a song (the characters really love music and live music (a variety of styles) is a prominent feature in the film; another thing I liked about it. You know how there are weddings/reception you attend where you might not know the couple very well, but nevertheless enjoy yourself because of touching displays of love and joy? Well, that’s the sort of thing that happens in the film. (I enjoyed the wedding vows in this.) There’s another part of the happy side of the film that’s secondary to the story, but nevertheless significant and something that appealed to me. I’m talking about the multi-ethnic mix of characters present at the wedding (the bride is white and the groom is black) and the multi-cultural flavor of the wedding (Indian food and dress and various live music being performed throughout the film). The groom’s mother says in a toast that this is what heaven will be like, and they’re just starting right now. It was a good line. I also liked the casual way this was depicted: the characters seem to treat each other as people and the film doesn’t have a self-consciousness towards race, nor was it preachy. I found all of this refreshing.

I want to mention the role the house played in the film. I really loved the house, a two story old fashioned house with a big porch and yard. The house and it’s role in the film made me think of The Big Chill. It’s the kind of house I’d like to have a get-together at and it just made the wedding more appealing.

But the authenticity of celebration, love and joy were equally matched with authenticity of pain, resentment and conflict. We gradually come to learn the tragedy of this family, and we see the way no family member is left unscathed and how each member is still wrestling with it. But what makes the movie so good is the way Demme juxtaposes these moments in the same scene. There’s one where the father, Paul (Irwin) challenging his son-in-law, Sidney (Adebimpe) to stacking the dishwasher and the fun is abruptly ruined by a reminder of the tragedy. But the scene that really captured this idea well is the one where Rachel and Kym are fighting and, out of nowhere, Rachel announces that she’s pregnant. The whole mood of the conversation shifts from strain and conflict to euphoric joy. It’s a whiplash that leaves Kym protesting, and everyone else basically drained and spent. This is what the film does so well, capturing these opposite emotions and showing the way they can suddenly appear one after the other with no warning.

Rachel Getting Married. I am shocked by how much Reid liked this film. It is usually the kind of film he refers dismissingly as “just a slice of life flick” (no matter how good the acting, or whatever).

This movie has some great acting. It’s realistic and the drama and comedy come naturally so that nothing seems forced or off-key. Demme relies on the actors and his direction to create tension, celebrate joyfully and have solemn moments all naturally. He doesn’t rely on music or plot twists or dynamic dialog to accomplish these things, he just lets them be. (I’m not sure if I’m explaining this well, but if it’s confusing, you can buy me a cup of coffee and I will try to be more eloquent).

Let’s just say this is a quietly powerful movie. It goes beyond slice-of-life to tackle some deep issues about family relationships, forgiveness, love and addiction. This is not an “easy” movie…one to watch and enjoy and walk away from. Because of the deeper issues addressed, it stays with you a bit…frames and snips of dialog and facial expressions. Anne Hathaway is getting much praise and it is well-deserved. But the woman that plays her sister is equally deserving of praise. Her performance is subtle and so on-point the whole movie.

Re: Rachel Getting Married

(possible spoilers)

I want to be a little clearer on the reason I liked this film so much more than the typical “slice-of-life” film. Actually, I think a better description of the film is “situational”–as in a film with a basic plot comprises of a universal situation. In this film, the situation is a wedding. (While I don’t usually get enthused about “slice-of-life” films, I do really like the “situational” films I’ve seen. Some examples are Tokyo Story, Sunrise: Song of Two Humans, L’Atalante or In the Mood for Love, the latter by Wong Kar Wai, a master who has taken this “genre” to another level.) However, what makes the film exceptional is the way the wedding–which has many authentically touching moments–has a past family tragedy running beneath it. The film slowly reveals the way this tragedy has affected each family member and the ways the different family members handle it. In effect, we see a family celebrating and we see this beautiful picture of (racial) harmony and joy–despite the very painful tragedy of the past. There’s something beautiful about that, the perseverance of the family; the joy and celebration despite lingering heartache. That’s life, albeit life at its most intense and dramatic. But that’s what makes it perfect material for a film. (I think Demme and screenwriter Lumet probably deserve nomination for awards, too.)

8 Responses to “Rachel Getting Married (2008)”

  1. Mitchell

    Rachel Getting Married (2008)
    Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie Dewitt, Bill Irwin, Debra Winger. Directed by Jonathan Demme.

    rachelFor many scenes in Rachel Getting Married, director Jonathan Demme didn’t work with cinematographer Declan Quinn to plan any of the camera shots. Quinn was instructed to let the action dictate where the cameras pointed while the actors were doing their scenes. Similarly, many of the scenes were never blocked or rehearsed, and the actors were encouraged to work off of each other. The result is a wonderfuly non-Hollywood-looking movie whose dialogue (often improvised) and staging seem amazing in their intimacy and believability. There are whispered arguments in dark rooms, and characters who follow each other through hallways clogged with other characters, and musicians playing on porches who are told to shut up by characters in adjacent kitchens, and it (mostly) all works to make one heck of a character study.

    Anne Hathaway is Kym, a twenty-something woman who leaves drug rehab for a few days to attend the wedding of her sister Rachel (Rosemarie Dewitt). The family house is crammed with people in the way that houses often are in those few days leading up to a wedding. There are guests from out of town, maids of honor all over the place, caterers, decorators, wedding planners, musicians, and old friends, all moving frantically about while Rachel, Kym, and their parents put on their best faces for this big event.

    gettingKym’s got problems, and it’s not hard to tell that Rachel has had problems of her own. The whole family is dealing with something terrible, too, and although this family is pretty vocal in its affections, the grieving never seems to have been shared, each member dealing with it completely alone, even when they are all in the same room.

    There are scenes where the emotions are so raw that you feel like an intruder, and those improvised camera angles heighten the effect. Similarly, there are scenes of great awkwardness that leave the viewer begging to be set free from the discomfort. I have said for a long time that one of the most dangerous things in the world is an open mike at a wedding reception, and there is a moment at a rehearsal dinner when Kym takes the mike and illustrates it perfectly.

    marriedAs a study of these sisters and their relationship, this is a heck of a movie, Dewitt and Hathaway turning in some amazing performances. I have a few problems with Demme’s insistence on setting a scene and holding it there; the rehearsal dinner seems to take forever, and there is a wedding reception scene that seems far, far, far too long, giving us little more than characters in different combinations dancing to different kinds of music. Demme took advantage of his characters’ ties to music and placed musicians all over the place, so that what sounds like soundtrack music is often actually ambient music played by friends of the groom all over the premises and throughout the film. He also gave the musicians instructions to improvise according to what what happening around them, something that seems like a cool idea but which I found tiresome.

    I will add that there are some musical scenes that seem to exist only because Demme likes the musicians. For instance, Robyn Hitchcock (or a character played by Robyn Hitchcock; it’s impossible to tell which) plays at the wedding, the cameras lingering on him as if Demme is saying, “Look who I got in my movie!” Tiresome.

    These failings aside, Rachel Getting Married is a good showcase of Hathaway’s and Dewitt’s acting chops, the kind of thing that says here are two actors who really know their stuff, if you didn’t know it already.


  2. Reid

    …and it (mostly) all works to make one heck of a character study.

    Huh. I can totally see why you would call it a character study. Certainly, painting a portrait of the the two sisters is important, but I didn’t see the film that way. If anything, I would say it’s a “family study” or even a “portrait” of a situation–specifically, a family wedding. Not that any of this is important.

    I have a few problems with Demme’s insistence on setting a scene and holding it there;…

    Again, I’m a little surprised by this reaction–as I would think you generally like lingering over a scene where nothing is happening. Or was there something happening and you didn’t happen to like that something? If so, I guess it makes sense that you wouldn’t like this. (I’m guessing it was too cheesy/sentimental? Personally, I loved those scenes.)

    I will add that there are some musical scenes that seem to exist only because Demme likes the musicians. For instance, Robyn Hitchcock (or a character played by Robyn Hitchcock; it’s impossible to tell which) plays at the wedding, the cameras lingering on him as if Demme is saying, “Look who I got in my movie!” Tiresome.

    I’m surprised by this commment. For one thing, did you like the music? I ask because I would have guessed that you would have liked the music, and, because of that, you wouldn’t mind the “indulgence.” Personally, I didn’t find the use of music tiresome at all–and this is not my type of music. The actor who played the groom is a real-life singer (can’t remember the group), and I’m not sure if he plays one in the film. But basically, the guests are the musical/creative types–and it’s a weekend where they’re all hanging out–so the playing a lot of the music would make sense.

  3. Mitchell

    The groom is in TV on the Radio, a good band. In the movie he plays a record producer, ‘though he does sing in the wedding ceremony. And yes, I know the music makes sense. I just thought there was too much of it. When Kym shouts, “Do they have to play ALL THE TIME?!?” I had been thinking the same thing, several scenes before. That was actually ad-libbed; Anne Hathaway thought it was distracting to her character, so she said that, and one of the background characters improvised, and hustled to the door to ask the musicians to “give it a rest, guys.”

    The music was generally fine. But there was just too much of it. And you’re right about the scenes I disliked: I don’t like weddings, and the wedding scene was too long. I don’t like wedding receptions, and the wedding reception was too long. I found myself thinking of excuses to just get out of there already.

  4. Reid

    I just thought there was too much of it.

    Which surprises me–for the reasons I mentioned.

    …I don’t like weddings, and the wedding scene was too long. I don’t like wedding receptions, and the wedding reception was too long. I found myself thinking of excuses to just get out of there already.

    Then that makes sense. I should have remembered that when I recommended this to you.

  5. Mitchell

    Well you still got it right. I really like this movie. I wouldn’t have predicted that you would. And it surprises me not at all that Penny likes it.

  6. Reid

    Your review is one of those that doesn’t match the rating, though.

    I wouldn’t have predicted that you would.

    That makes sense. I think this is a tough film to call with regard to my liking it or not. By the way, apropos of our conversation the other night, the realism and naturalism of the acting/characters/situation is one of the reasons I liked this film. (On a side note, you’ve probably heard of the TV series William H. Macy’s is in. Anyway, in an interview, he talked about how they filmed the scenes, and it sounded like a similar approach Demme used in this film–an approach that appealed to me a lot.)

    And it surprises me not at all that Penny likes it.

    Yeah, but that’s not saying much. The real achievement would be picking something she would intensely love.

  7. m

    I disagree. Most of the space is spent talking about how good it is. I spend the last bit talking about the stuff I didn’t like because this should be a 90+ film and I felt I needed to explain why it’s not.

  8. m


    The DVD I watched had two commentary tracks, one by the the director (along with someone else in the production end) and one by Rosemarie DeWitt. I didn’t have time for both, so I chose the actor’s commentary. I find the directors’ commentaries in general to be more educational, while the actors’ commentaries tend to be more entertaining, and I was in the mood for the latter.

    DeWitt points out a lot of the production stuff that I wouldn’t have known, so that was pretty cool. My favorite was that she was pretty much limited to the family house and to the restaurant (for the rehearsal dinner) for all of her scenes, so DeWitt (the actress) and Rachel (the character) don’t see Kym’s scenes away from the house. She points out that Rachel has no idea what Kym is going through at her Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and just how much of a struggle it is every day for Rachel, or how sincerely and fervently Rachel is trying to recover.

    This makes me like my favorite scene even more, the scene where Rachel tells the others at her meeting about not wanting to believe in a God who will readily forgive her. I love how she has condemned herself to going through this the hard way, but how she seems resolved (albeit unsteady and unsure) to get through it.

    The AA / NA meeting is such a tired device that I normally look for an exit when I see it pop up, but I bought this one. Rachel really feels that these anonymous strangers are the only people she can share with, and it is just a really strong scene. It’s the “I Dreamed a Dream” of this movie.

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