Marry, marry, quite contrary

Rachel Getting Married puts some spice into a gooey genre

Rachel Getting Married puts some spice into a gooey genre

Kieran (Mather Zickel, left) and Kym (Anne Hathaway) share a moment with bride Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) and groom Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe) in Rachel Getting Married. ((Bob Vergara/Sony Pictures/MongrelMedia))
Rachel Getting Married may not be a perfect film, but it does contain a perfect wedding — that is, if your tastes tend toward The Royal Tenenbaums and away from 27 Dresses. Most wedding movies are so goopy, so frosted with arrested-development little-girl fantasy that Rachel’s artsy, multiculti, literati-loving vibe seems like a radical reinvention of the genre. What Star Wars did for played-out science-fiction flicks, this one does for wedding movies.

In real life, the enduring image of most weddings is Great Aunt Ethel kicking off her pumps to Mustang Sally. Wedding movies shy away from such unpleasant realities, selling a million-dollar princess dream in a post-feminist age. Rachel’s wedding fantasy looks homemade, but make no mistake, this is an expensive, upper-class reverie designed for downtown hipster brides who scorn doves but still want to be frocked and feted. The Rachel Getting Married wedding includes beat poetry, indie artiste Robyn Hitchcock wandering through a candlelit backyard, Roger Corman as a guest, and a groom who forgoes vows for an a cappella rendition of a Neil Young song. Of course, just as you will never attend a wedding as gauzy as Katherine Heigl’s in 27 Dresses, you will never attend a wedding as cool as this. (You think yours was, but trust me, it wasn’t.)

And oh yes, there’s a movie in here somewhere, too, and a pretty good one. Director Jonathan Demme has scaled back from offbeat docs and recent excesses like The Manchurian Candidate — sometimes prolific is just another word for inconsistent — to craft an intimate family portrait. Borrowing from the dormant Dogme style, this is moviemaking as experiment, often ad-libbed (or feeling like it), with jittery, hand-held cinematography by Declan Quinn. While the style can be distractingly self-conscious at times, it matches the subject: all weddings ultimately exist only on tape, shaky and handheld. But when the bridal fussing and the speeches — no matter how Glass family charming — go on too long, as they do, the veracity works against Demme. Wedding videos are also a little disposable, more interesting to those who were there (the actors must have had a blast) than to those watching later.

The bride, Rachel (Mad Men’s intimidating Rosemarie DeWitt), has a sister, Kym (Anne Hathaway), who’s released from rehab for the wedding weekend. Kym is the ultimate bad bridesmaid. She’s a narcissist, a nut job and a mike hog — ah, the wedding toast! The birthplace of cringe comedy! But Kym isn’t entirely out of place, as the festivities are overflowing with creative types and eccentrics. The peacemaking patriarch (played by comedian Bill Irwin) is a music executive, and the groom (Tunde Adebimpe, from Brooklyn band TV on the Radio) is a producer. Hence, fleets of musicians are tuning up and breaking into song in every corner of the Richard Scarry-like house.

Kym (Anne Hathaway, left) brings discord to the party in Rachel Getting Married. ((Bob Vergara/Sony Pictures/MongrelMedia) )
Kym steps into the joyful chaos and sucks the joy right out of it, sparking confrontations with anyone who crosses her path and then bicycling off to her AA meetings. Hovering above the proceedings is a family secret about the death of a younger brother, and it’s a doozy. First-time screenwriter Jenny Lumet (daughter of Sidney) resorts to a kind of melodrama that might be unforgivable in a regular film but strikes the right tone for a wedding movie, where every emotion is amplified and broadcast loud anyway.

There’s an appealing skittishness to the proceedings. Demme moves between the various relationships cinema-vérité style, capturing brief glimpses of comedy, beauty — like a truly moving speech by the groom’s mother at the dinner table — and cruelty, which doesn’t exclusively emanate from Kym. Rachel and Kym’s parents are divorced, and emotionally estranged mother Debra Winger is always late to the party. She’s a chilly WASP mom, just barely interested. Rachel tries desperately to connect with her over flowers and catering, but mom is always backing out of the room. In part, her distance is due to the loss of her son, which presumably led to the end of her marriage, too. These connections aren’t so much revelations as glimpses, all of which connect the dots to Kym’s damage.

With her bad posture and chewed lips, Kym looks like someone trying to slough off her beauty. Sass-spewing Hathaway is clearly working overtime to outrun her image as a teen princess, and the performance is honest, but sometimes histrionic. It’s one of those roles actors undertake to court Oscar: get ugly, get mentally challenged or get hooked. DeWitt is more interesting, if less noticeable, as the bride who has gritted her teeth in the sister-storm blowback her whole life; she’s wonderfully furious.

The competition between sisters may remind some viewers of a film they never saw: last year’s Margot at the Wedding. The plots are similar, but they’re very different films, and to my mind, Margot is more successful. (Many critics loathed it.) Director Noah Baumbach is brutally unsentimental — unheard of in the wedding genre — and his weird little film offered a complicated view of emotional injury without the plot-in-a-bottle excuse of a hidden tragedy. In Margot, Nicole Kidman plays another monstrous sister at a wedding, but she’s the opposite of Kym: perfect surfaces, smooth and venomous and above all, fascinating. I wasn’t all that fascinated by Kym. Beautiful drug addicts are something of a modern archetype (see: Drugstore Cowboy), and the traumas they induce have become common fodder for Oprah and reality TV.

But what Rachel Getting Married lacks in originality, it makes up for in sweetness and light. The unbridled materialism of most wedding films hinders any emotional connection with the characters; you come for the cake, not the people. In Rachel, when everyone piles on the hands to cut that cake, the mawkishness is cut, too, undone by sincerity. Here’s a wedding film that believes not just in gowns (though the gowns are funky, of course) but also in union.

Rachel Getting Married opens Oct. 3.

Katrina Onstad is the film columnist for CBCNews.ca.