Written by Jenny Lumet and reminiscent of the brilliant ensemble films of Robert Altman, Rachel Getting Married is set on the weekend Kym's sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) weds her longtime boyfriend Sydney (Tunde Adebimpe) at her family's sprawling country home. Kym is given a pass from her rehab to attend the wedding, and her interaction with her family members is painful and revealing. A scene at an AA meeting establishes Kym's sincere desire to straighten out her life, but she's a long way from psychologically healed. She is a bitter, self-centered, needy and characteristically mean person.
Among the first remarks she makes upon arriving home is to "compliment" Rachel by saying, "You're so tiny, I'd swear you were puking again." Later Kym creates a nasty scene when she discovers Rachel has chosen someone else as her maid of honor. Then at the rehearsal dinner, after many family members have toasted the bride and groom with warm and funny stories, Kym embarrasses everyone with a rambling speech about herself. Kym might be judged irredeemable if it weren't so clear she reviles herself, that she understands she has committed acts so repugnantly irresponsible that she can never atone for them. "I could be Mother Theresa for the rest of my life," she declares, "and it wouldn't matter."
A lesser filmmaker than Demme might have been satisfied to settle for a portrait of an addict, in which case, everyone else would be reduced to the role of longsuffering victim. But Demme explores the contours of sundry other characters. Rachel does not suffer her sister's selfishness quietly. She fights back in a way that reveals years of pent up resentment. As in the biblical story of the Prodigal Son, the good child begrudges what she sees as her father Paul's (Bill Irwin) indulgence of Kym's many transgressions. This passage brims with insight. Rachel is right, and yet Paul has done what he genuinely thought best. Kym's actions hardly warrant her father's loyalty, but in the grace of parental devotion, he nonetheless loves her without condition.
Kym's lifelong troubles and a tragedy for which she was responsible destroyed her parents' marriage. The film nicely captures the tension and discomfort that inevitably arises in such situations. Paul's second wife Carol (Anna Deaveare Smith in a nicely understated, almost silent performance) is the hostess for Rachel's wedding, but his first wife Abby (Debra Winger) is still the mother of the bride. Though Demme never underlines the point, we can see the commendable effort both women make to cede prerogative, and so honor and support the other.
Demme also refuses to emphasize the racial dynamic at the wedding's center. The Buchmans are affluent white people. Sydney comes from a working-class black family. These are not people automatically comfortable with each other, yet, as the weekend celebration moves from one stage to the next and as words of love and union are repeated in various permutations, we watch as people relax and embrace each other spiritually as well as physically.
There's a bit of a rambling quality to the storytelling and that's an unfortunate imperfection the product, I suspect, of Demme's reluctance to tinker with a screenplay for which he had much admiration. There's an unnecessary car crash that gets unconvincingly swept to the narrative sidelines. And the picture goes on longer than it should, carrying several minutes beyond its powerhouse emotional zenith. But these minor failures hardly detract from a film of great heart and bracing humanity. The wedding itself is a marvel of authenticity, and by the time the minister rises to conduct the ceremony, I felt myself not a moviegoer but a guest in attendance. The exchange of vows is a potent mix of almost unbearable corniness and heart-splitting emotion, the cutting of the cake a symphony of hope.