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October 8, 2008 |

By John Williams | Film | October 8, 2008 |

The pleasantly shambling, real-life feel of Rachel Getting Married helps make up for the presence of the most neurotic, helpless, mewling family in recent memory: The Buchmans. The leading lady is Kym (Anne Hathaway), the clan’s addled, addicted daughter, home for the weekend from rehab for the marriage of her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). The girls’ divorced parents take opposite roles in the proceedings. Their father, Paul (Bill Irwin), cheerfully organizes every last detail with his new wife, Carol (Anna Deavere Smith). Their icy mother, Abby (Debra Winger), basically stays away from the scene, showing up late to and leaving early from the various festivities, like a Dodgers fan.

The groom, Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), is joined by his own family, and the house is infested with various other friends and helpers. This cast, enough to form a small town, is the movie’s best asset, because it keeps the focus only partly on Kym. Hathaway is perfectly convincing in the role, but since she’s playing someone who’s insufferable it’s hard to gauge the compliment. (The filmmakers, apparently unsure of how to de-beautify her, use hair and make-up to turn her into a raccoon after a rainstorm. It doesn’t quite work; she still looks lovelier and fresher than someone who’s been irritably sheltered in rehab for the past nine months.)

Initially, director Jonathan Demme tries too hard to establish both Kym and the entire movie as edgy. Her first few hyper-speed, referential lines of dialogue had me fearing a grown-up version of Juno after a decade of disappointment and painkillers. And a humiliating aerial view of her urinating into a cup for a drug test signaled a warts-and-all access policy that, thankfully, didn’t last.

The screenplay by Jenny Lumet (director Sidney’s daughter) could have used some scuffed-up humanity in addition to the self-hating, trouble-making Kym. The movie’s indifference to the fact that Rachel is marrying an African-American is noble, but its over-the-top happy multiculturalism is a distraction. It’s one thing to be accepting and tolerant, even gleefully open-armed; it’s another to be amorphous. There are so many people and traditions on display — African, Brazilian, Asian, Indian, Hawaiian, and most certainly WASP (Paul welcomes his family’s guests to Connecticut and its “complicated tax structure”) — that the movie nearly turns into a two-hour Benetton commercial. There’s even what Sarah Palin might call a shout-out to the military, lest someone is ignored — a relative of the groom is recently home from Iraq, and more than once the script pointedly wishes him well. If that’s not enough, everyone is incredibly talented. True, Sidney is a musician, but does that mean that every last person in attendance can sing or play the sax like they’re on break from a national tour? Beyond the familial dysfunction, there’s an unnerving sense that everything else in the world is just perfect. Or, as the groom’s mother puts it at the rehearsal dinner, “This is how it is in heaven.”

Perhaps the background strains of “Kumbaya” are meant to better foreground the hell that is life as a Buchman. The family has been eroded by Kym’s problems for a long time, and a related tragedy haunts them as well. (This tragedy, which does a lot to explain — and compensate for — the mewling, is cleverly revealed as the wedding weekend progresses. In both its documentary-like visual style and its fraught family reunion, Rachel Getting Married resembles The Celebration, a Danish movie so nearly perfect that to say it’s superior to the one under review isn’t damning in the least.)

If all of this sounds less than terribly inviting, it’s the pacing that saves the day. The rehearsal dinner is a master class in patience, as the camera captures several speeches in real time. The scene might be 15 minutes long, but by the time it’s over, you feel (in a good way) like you’ve been there all night. Likewise, a charming scene in which Sidney and Paul compete to see who’s more efficient at packing the dishwashing machine is played at an appealingly natural rhythm.

By its end, Rachel Getting Married has avoided several pitfalls. Only one or two family confrontations feel strained and overwritten, and only one scene is a true stinker — a silly, unlikely moment in which Kym is confronted by someone from her past. The rest has a cumulative, sympathetic effect not unlike spending a weekend at someone’s wedding. Kym’s flaws aren’t glossed, her relationship with Rachel is composed of alternating bouts of affection and frustration that feel true, and there are no pat answers for how Kym might better handle herself or how the family might better handle Kym. It’s a comfortable fit — an imperfect movie about the imperfect Buchmans.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

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