Even before I saw the end titles with their dedication to the late Robert Altman, I said to myself, "This is the best film Robert Altman never made." It is also the best film that the still-very-much-with-us Jonathan Demme has made since Something Wild and the best film I've seen thus far this year. This isn't to say that Rachel Getting Married is fun to watch. It is painfully, punishingly sad and though it balances that sadness with the joyousness of the fresh start of a wedding (filmed with wonderful Altman-like extemporaneousness by director Demme, who is far more freewheeling here than I remember him being outside of his concert films), it is the sadness that sticks with you.
Anyone who has a black sheep in his or her family (or is a black sheep himself or herself) will relate, for this is a story about the dreadful things we do to ourselves and our families (and they to us)—about the histories that can never be begun anew, the mistakes that cannot be rectified, the hard, rocky hurts over which the streams of our lives silently run. These are things worn too deeply into us for words or acts or good intentions to make right. And yet, out of guilt and pity and pure and impure love, we sometimes try to do so—as Bill Irwin (quite touching as Rachel and Kym’s guilt-ridden father) and Rosemarie DeWitt (pitch-perfect as the good child, the forgotten child Rachel) do—and sometimes we simply write them off—as Debra Winger (as Rachel and Kym’s icy mother) does.
Although it is titled Rachel Getting Married most of the film is about Rachel's sister, Kym, played with astonishing insight and sensitivity by Anne Hathaway. (Yes, the Anne Hathaway of The Devil Wears Prada and Get Smart.) Kym is a fatally damaged soul—an addict, in and out of institutions (she comes to the wedding on temporary leave from her latest rehab), who has done things so dreadful (and one thing in particular that I won't reveal here) that there is no way to atone for them, as she herself understands—and who will continue to do things throughout the wedding weekend that touch, sadden, embarrass, and infuriate all those who want to love and trust her but have learned through bitter experience that they cannot.
In movies, the unforgivable is all too often easily atoned for and the complex mix of pain inflicted and endured and of love given and taken back simplified into one thing or another. Here, as if by magic, all is held in lifelike suspension—hurt, love, remorse, pity, anger, sorrow, hatred, forgiveness, and the contempt and self-contempt and sheer emotional and physical exhaustion that come from fearful struggle with the irresolvable problem that is Kym. Although there is old-fashioned melodrama at the heart of this portrait of a dysfunctional family, which, like all dysfunctional families, tries its best to keep functioning, and the film is set in a liberal, monied, profoundly colorblind, surreally musical world of suburban Connecticut, it easily surmounts any cliché elements to give us one of the most realistic portraits of a damaged child and the family that loves and hates and fears her I’ve ever seen. Though no one changes in Rachel Getting Married, by its touching end Kym and Rachel come to somewhat more settled terms about who they are and how they feel about themselves, their parents, and each other. There is a wary hopefulness in this recognition but also a heartbreakingly sad acknowledgement that some things cannot be changed, only accepted.