Rachel Getting Married: Dysfunctionalism vs. Multiculturalism

Although Jonathan Demme is best known for directing the Oscar-winning thriller, The Silence of the Lambs (1991), he is also a highly accomplished director of feature length concert performances such as the Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense (1984) and Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006). In Rachel Getting Married he applies his gift for directing music to a family wedding drama.

Rachel Getting Married begins like a bad wedding video with Demme using hand-held camera and mumblecore soundtrack to follow Kym (Anne Hathaway) home from an extended rehab for the weekend wedding of her sister Rachel (Rosemarie Dewitt). This passed-around camcorder technique forces viewers to pay close attention to avoid losing lines of dialogue or missing significant gestures in the opening scenes, but more importantly it creates an antagonism between content and form, story and style, that permeates every frame of this fascinating study in family dynamics.

Unlike so many of the dysfunctional family wedding movies, Rachel Getting Married does not make the bride and groom “ground zero” in a maelstrom of eccentric personalities rigidly clinging to cultural stereotypes. Instead, the multi-racial, multi-ethnic guests at this wedding mingle amicably throughout the large Connecticut home of Rachel’s father and stepmother. Sidney (Tunde Adibimpe), the groom, is in the music business, and his friends create a non-stop backdrop of music, effortlessly mixing styles and genres to match the joyous mood. Into this harmonious ensemble steps Kym, the film’s most conflicted character, and the inevitable focus of drama. Kym’s struggle to fit into her own family overshadows the conjoining of two families that the wedding represents.

Although she is a recovering addict with a painful past, Kym’s real problem is that in the drama of life she was cast as the sister that can do nothing right, while Rachel was cast as the sister that can do nothing wrong. Not only is Rachel getting married, she is finishing her Ph.D. and, she reveals, she is pregnant, all of which delights her parents, step parents and future in-laws. Kym competes by being equally accomplished at self destruction.

Key scenes emphasize Kym’s sincere desire, yet utter inability, to be the kind of sister/daughter she wants to be. During the rehearsal dinner, for example, Kym wants to make “amends” to her sister, but only succeeds in embarrassing her, because the speech she gives comes off sounding like a self-aggrandizing paean to her past impropriety rather than an expression of appreciation for Rachel. Although the sibling rivalry between Rachel and Kym is persistent, it is never bitter because Rachel always forgives her sister. Their father Paul (Bill Irwin) forgives Kym, too. Kym, however, has at least one sin in her past for which she can never forgive herself. She is responsible for her little brother’s death.

The effervescent multiculturalism of this film provides an uplifting context for the painful scenes of ongoing family tragedy, but like the constant music generated by Sidney’s friends, it forms a kind of impenetrable backdrop to a world that is unfolding always beyond Kym’s grasp. The humiliation is never humorous. In spite of all the joy, it remains tragic. Nowhere is that more clear then at the end of the evening as the wedding winds down, and Kym's mother, Abby (Debra Winger), is about to leave. Rachel wants to hug her mother and sister simultaneously, but the moment is too much for Abby, and she pulls away. It’s not a scene that can be explained. It doesn’t reveal the key to Kym’s addictive behaviour, the parent’s divorce, or the reason for the death of their third child. It simply exists as a painful thread in a tragic tapestry that is trying very hard to weave itself into joy.

Ultimately, the film ends with a reserved optimism. Rachel’s wedding concludes with no major problems, and Kym returns to rehab at the end of the weekend. But this isn’t a comedy or a feel good flick. The happy ending isn’t precluded. Rachel may very well achieve all the joy promised in her new life with Sidney, but with it she must also accept that dysfunction, like multiculturalism, is inevitable in the American family.

The wedding becomes a metaphor for the day-to-day struggle to balance relatives and friends, pain and pleasure, comedy and tragedy, peace and conflict that lies at the core of all family life. Traditionally, a wedding at the end is what defines a work as comedy, just as death at the end defines a tragedy. Rachel Getting Married is in a constant struggle to find stasis between the two. In fact, comedy and tragedy are the real bride and groom in this wedding movie, and it is largely up to the viewer to decide on which side to sit.

Joseph Christopher Schaub, CineMatters: December 2008.