It's not for nothing that there's a present participle in the title of “Rachel Getting Married.” This emotionally demanding tour de force by veteran indie and blockbuster director Jonathan Demme is all about process, about the forever unfinished and unfinishable work of making families cohere and forging new ways to be. Fashioned from elements that could have given rise to sentimental handwringing or pat morality tales — a wayward daughter just out of rehab, an interracial marriage — “Rachel Getting Married” makes a compelling case for not giving up (not yet, anyway) on the potentially treacherous entanglements of love: love fraternal, matrimonial, familial — the whole shebang.
In a film whose every move is calculated to keep us off balance, it is perhaps natural that the principal focus be not on Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), who is white, or on her fiancAc Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe, of the experimental band TV on the Radio), who is black. Rather, the penetrating debut script by Jenny Lumet places its heaviest burdens on Rachel's sister Kym, a mentally ragged ex-junkie played with extraordinary conviction by Anne Hathaway, who here, wonderful to relate, seems worlds away from such roles as the incarnation of pouty entitlement she played in “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006).
Returning to the family home from her rehab center on the eve of the wedding, Kym does absolutely nothing to put people at ease or to keep the spotlight focused on her sister's big day. She's burdened by the recollection of life-altering horrors she's committed in the past while stoned, and deals with the pressure by relentlessly, masochistically calling attention to her crimes. She begins a toast to the happy couple by jokily intoning the words, “I am Shiva, the destroyer.” No one laughs.
While Kym seems determined to remain the outsider, the family that's trying to reconnect to her aspires to be endlessly accepting, as the mixed-race union at its new core suggests. Those expecting the turgid pieties of a “Guess Who's Coming to Dinner” may be baffled by the utter casualness, bordering on indifference, with how characters and the movie itself treat race. “This is how it is in heaven,” the mother of the groom says at a prewedding banquet, a comment that might seem saccharine were it not for its acknowledgement that on earth things aren't always thus.
But by clearing away old prejudices in a way that just a few decades ago would have seemed fantastical, “Rachel Getting Married” opens itself up all the more forthrightly to problems that progress never seems to touch: the supplanting of the old by the young, bereavement, guilt and love.
That's a lot to tackle, surely, but the cast seems to have taken inspiration from the challenge, turning in performance after performance luminous with integrity. As Rachel and Kym's father Paul, Bill Irwin does a wonderful job capturing the pathos of a man who knows that his family can never again be what it was, but who still harbors the desperate hope that maybe the right gesture, such as fixing everyone a meatloaf sandwich, will somehow cure all. Debra Winger is equally remarkable in her relatively small, but at times brutally intense, role as the girls' mother, whose marriage to Paul did not survive the tragedies brought on by Rachel's addiction.
In a move that has decisively shaped the film, and for the better, Demme determined not to plan out shots in advance, instead allowing cinematographer Declan Quinn to make compositional choices on the fly with a hand-held camera, sometimes as he came upon action in progress as he turned a corner of the rambling Victorian house where much of the film is set. The result is an improvised, documentary feel that jibes beautifully with the characters' own, often fumbling attempts to find the right form for their affections.
Although it seems an unlikely comment on the work of the man who brought us “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), there's something almost guileless about Demme's filmmaking here, as if he were in the grip of a lovely faith that just tracking our daily performances will be enough to move and provoke. Guileless or not, it's a faith that “Rachel Getting Married” exhilaratingly justifies. (R) 113 min. S