Those who believe that Jonathan Demme went all soft with Philadelphia and never recovered may not be reassured by his latest movie, an ensemble tale of family pathology gussied up with vérité camera work, world music and improvising actors both trained and not. You can find the worst and the best of Demme in Rachel Getting Married, which may be an avowed fan's fond farewell to Robert Altman, but it's still a middlebrow domestic drama beating its wings against an experimental frame.
For all the familiar terrain it plows — dysfunctional clan comes unglued, regroups — the movie is not without its sly rewards, one of which is Anne Hathaway in chopped hair and pleading eyes as the bad seed who threatens to wreck a perfectly good hippie nuptial. For someone who's mostly been stuck playing glowing good girls (The Princess Diaries, The Devil Wears Prada), Hathaway's feverish portrayal of Kym, a junkie venturing out of rehab for the weekend to attend her upright sister's wedding, shows a gift for brittle passive-aggression blended with a fragile desperation that cuts right through any uncharitable thoughts you might harbor about another pretty actress angling for an Oscar. No wilting crackhead, Kym is a grade-A emotional terrorist who imagines that no matter what's going on, it's all about her: from manipulating her sister Rachel (Mad Men's Rosemarie DeWitt) into dumping her own best friend as maid of honor in favor of Kym, to using a prenuptial dinner toast for a self-pitying public bath in her own travails. Setting off little bombs that threaten to reduce to rubble the whole carefully planned ceremony — not to mention the whole carefully reconstructed family — Kym resists all efforts to contain her. Hathaway's adroit grandstanding puts up an impressive fight against a TV-movie plot that features the kind of secret only lazy screenwriters use to get an audience's tears flowing, a baffling subtextual plea for interracial love and understanding, and a climax full of gaga goodwill.
How much of Kym's bracingly whiny dialogue was actually written by screenwriter Jenny Lumet (daughter of the late Sidney) is unclear, for Demme seems bent on ceding directorial control wherever possible. He's stacked the cast with his friends, neighbors and a sprinkling of New Orleans' dispossessed, not to mention the international musicians endlessly tuning up in every nook and cranny of the house, tracked by Declan Quinn's jittery handheld camera. (When Hathaway, in an irritable and apparently unscripted moment, asks for them to shut up already, I stifled a cheer.) Like any good host, Demme gave some of his wedding guests their own little cameras, and while it's fun to glimpse his mentor Roger Corman wielding one, I'm not convinced that all this aesthetic democracy is required to support such a simple tale. Yet it's Demme's loosey-goosey method that ends up breathing any ragged life into the movie's saintly march toward a happy ending.
Demme seems to be a kind and hopeful man who wants to make people feel good — and though, given the choice, I'd rather be watching his more versatile and joyful musical creation, Stop Making Sense, it's hard to begrudge him the colorful saris, world music, interracial harmony and all. Certainly, I enjoyed Rachel Getting Married a whole lot better than its evil twin in form and theme, Noah Baumbach's grungy, mean-spirited, relentlessly cold Margot at the Wedding. And at his best (Melvin and Howard, Crazy Mama, Citizen's Band), Demme instinctively grasps the runaway anarchy of human relations, in this case the way hurt and loss ricochet around a troubled family like poisoned arrows for years. DeWitt is terrific in the thankless role of the overcompensating daughter, a psychologist prone to psychobabbling "insight." And even with all the distracting flimflam buzzing around them, there's still a searing intensity to the battling duo at the movie's core, two imperfectly mothered sisters going at it like bantam roosters when they should be closing ranks.
At its wild heart, Rachel Getting Married offers a compelling instance of British writer Alan Bennett's observation that people are much more interesting and much more themselves not when they are bad, but when they're trying to be good — and that includes Kym and Rachel's remote mother (Debra Winger back with us, radiant even when barely emoting) and their caring but helplessly hand-wringing father (Bill Irwin). To watch Rachel and Kym hammer away at one another, retreat, return to jockeying for the attention of their separated parents, and finally try to connect is to witness both the terrible loneliness of being surrounded by family with no one on your side — and the brave, admirable folly of hope triumphing over experience.