Rachel Getting Married reminds audiences what Jonathan Demme does best, but also suffers from the same faults that have mucked up his recent work. The film opens with Kym's (Anne Hathaway) father (Bill Irwin) and stepmother picking her up from rehab so that Kym can go home for her sister Rachel's (Rosemarie DeWitt) nuptials. The family house overflows with musicians, artists, and friends who are busy preparing for the big event; someone in the house is playing music almost all of the time. Within minutes of her arrival, the dysfunctional relationships within the family fall into a familiar rut with Rachel yelling at Kym for her selfishness, Kym demanding sympathy from everyone, and their ineffectual dad trying to keep the peace.
Hathaway and DeWitt are superb together. There is no doubt of their genuine love for -- and absolute exasperation with -- each other. Your sympathies shift between the two during the opening scenes, and this is one of Demme's great strengths -- he never judges Kym for her addictions, and never questions Rachel's frustration and anger. The actresses each deliver finely detailed performances, particularly in the scenes where their recriminations fall away to reveal the genuine affection flowing underneath all the resentments.
Had Demme focused on this human drama he might have created a minor-key masterpiece, but instead he indulges in sequences featuring all the other people who are part of the wedding. Understand, these scenes don't actually introduce us to all these people -- we don't get to know them at all -- they are just simple moments that don't add up to anything. For example, a series of toasts during the rehearsal dinner starts charmingly before devolving into speech after speech from characters you've barely seen before and might not see again; eventually, you feel as bored as you would be at a social function where you don't know a single person. Demme's humanism used to be effortless, but here it leads to deadening collections of scenes that serve no dramatic purpose. Demme wants us to observe the diversity, but he makes us look at it for so long that you start to question why he's making us stare at it instead of trusting us to accept that this is how this world is. He presents cultural diversity with a dispassion that's meant to illustrate how ordinary this idealized picture of togetherness should be, but observing a microcosm of a social utopia isn't as interesting as being part of one. By failing to return regularly to his engaging main story, Demme neuters the power of his own subtext.
From his early days with Roger Corman, Demme possessed both a gargantuan humanism and a light touch. Few filmmakers could put characters as odd as those that populate Melvin and Howard, Citizens Band, and Something Wild onscreen without an ounce of judgment or condescension. In Hannibal Lecter, Demme finally found a character that matched his own ability to observe human behavior. This sympathetic connection helped make The Silence of the Lambs a classic, but it seems to have exhausted Demme creatively. In Philadelphia and Beloved, he ceased looking at people for the sheer joy of understanding them, and began to look at them out of some sense that his audience would become better people for having done so. That kind of moral ambition rarely leads to quality filmmaking. Rachel Getting Married does offer a glimpse of the simple humanitarianism Demme used to handle with aplomb, but once again, it's compromised by mild self-righteousness.