By Film Critic Michael Phillips

Rachel Getting Married Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Debra Winger, Tunde Adebimpe, Mather Zickel, Anna Deavere Smith, Anisa George

A triumph of ambience, "Rachel Getting Married" is the first narrative feature since the 1980s from director Jonathan Demme that feels like a party -- bittersweet, but a party nonetheless.

It's not a remake of a Hollywood standard such as "The Truth About Charlie," Demme's riff on "Charade," or "The Manchurian Candidate," and although Demme's Oscar-winning work on "The Silence of the Lambs" did wonders for his industry cachet, I'll never love that movie the way I love the Demme films no one else could've made, the ones heralding an off-center chronicler of the human comedy.

"Melvin and Howard" is what I'm talking about, or the Christine Lahti scenes in "Swing Shift," or the best stuff in "Married to the Mob," where Michelle Pfeiffer blossomed into a crack comic actress before your eyes.

The "Rachel Getting Married" script could've been filmed any number of ways, most of them leading straight to the Lifetime channel. Demme shoots it like a documentary about a sublime wedding crossed with an uneasy family reunion. It's all done with handheld high-def digital video cameras, on the prowl. Screenwriter Jenny Lumet has a penchant for "Playhouse 90"-type confrontations, which may be a genetic inevitability, given who her father is: director Sidney Lumet, who made his bones in '50s television.

But the way Demme and cinematographer Declan Quinn finesse the material, big scenes come and go with unusual rapidity, while details other directors would've glossed over -- a series of wedding toasts, for instance, or a parade of samba dancers -- are lingered over, lovingly.

The protagonist, Kym, is played as an insolent, wary bundle of nerves by Anne Hathaway. In the film's first minute we're told that Kym is responsible for killing someone years ago in a car accident. Lumet keeps the details sketchy at the outset. Nine months into her latest rehab stay, the recovering alcoholic and drug addict, who apparently has done some modeling in her teen years, is being let out of "the big house" to attend her sister Rachel's wedding at her family home -- a dream of a rambling old Connecticut manse, with a big green lawn and a swirl of hidden tensions.

Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt, superb in her delineations of anger and affection) dreads sister Kym's return. The father, played by the masterly stage actor Bill Irwin, hovers sweetly but persistently around Kym, watching for signs of a potential relapse, perpetually carrying a plate of something ("You guys hungry?"). Dad is on his second marriage (Anna Deavere Smith, with too little to do, plays his current wife). The girls' mother, also remarried, is played by Debra Winger, and the second this imperious character appears onscreen you sense a certain amount of medication masking a certain amount of unresolved pain. And you suspect that this magnificent performer should do more films.

Demme's documentaries have prepared him well to tackle a narrative feature in this fashion, though other influences abound: the French New Wave, the ebb and flow of Robert Altman's ensemble explorations (though "A Wedding" was pretty minor Altman). Also, Demme draws from the stripped-down Dogma school and the recent films inspired by the Dogma wave. Susanne Bier's bracing "After the Wedding" seems to be a touchstone. We scurry after Kym from rehab to wedding rehearsal dinner to spontaneous, combustible reunion with her mother, one of the year's most memorable short, sharp shocks.

When Mather Zickel, who plays a 12-step colleague of Kym's, talks about "missing the drama" of his addict days, he may well be speaking for audiences accustomed to movies that behave more like movies and less like life. Well, it worked for me. A more head-on interpretation of Lumet's script would've been a bit of a chore, and Demme's spinnin'-round-the-FM-dial musicology makes him the best possible DJ for any multiethnic wedding.

Contrary to its dubious R rating (a little rough language and tiny smidge of fully clothed sex), the sisterly dust-ups and familial ups and downs of "Rachel Getting Married" would likely appeal to the average adventurous teenager as much as the average Demme fan. Hathaway, DeWitt, Irwin and especially Winger are working at a very high level. So is their director. His intuition regarding how to film this particular milestone event, and the stories unfolding in the margins, turned out to be just right.

"Rachel Getting Married" - Oscar Nominations

"Rachel Getting Married" Movie Trailer



About the Movie "Rachel Getting Married"

MPAA rating: R (for language and brief sexuality).

Running time: 1:51.

Starring: Anne Hathaway (Kym); Rosemarie DeWitt (Rachel); Bill Irwin (Paul); Debra Winger (Abby); Tunde Adebimpe (Sidney); Mather Zickel (Kieran); Anna Deavere Smith (Carol); Anisa George (Emma).

Directed by Jonathan Demme; written by Jenny Lumet; photographed by Declan Quinn; edited by Tim Squyres; production design by Ford Wheeler; music by Zafer Tawil and Donald Harrison Jr.; produced by Demme, Neda Armian and Marc Platt. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

When KYM (Anne Hathaway) returns to the Buchman family home for the wedding of her sister RACHEL (Rosemarie Dewitt), she brings a long history of personal crisis, family conflict and tragedy along with her. The wedding couple’s abundant party of friends and relations have gathered for a joyful weekend of feasting, music and love, but Kym—with her biting one-liners and flair for bombshell drama—is a catalyst for long-simmering tensions in the family dynamic.

Filled with the rich and eclectic characters that remain a hallmark of Jonathan Demme’s films, RACHEL GETTING MARRIED paints a heartfelt, perceptive and sometimes hilarious family portrait. Director Demme, first-time writer Jenny Lumet, and the stellar acting ensemble leaven the drama of these difficult but compelling people with wry affection and generosity of spirit.