Alfred Hitchcock once said, “Drama is life with the dull bits left out.” Well, “Rachel Getting Married” is drama with the dull bits left in.
It has been rightly praised for the honesty of the storytelling. In fact, it's so darned scrupulous that it follows every realistic scene to its end, however long that may take.
Is the family about to bond over a dishwasher-filling contest, however little it furthers the plot or tells us about the characters? Rest assured we'll watch the cocky son-in-law cram the appliance full in two minutes, then see Dad empty it and refill it more adroitly.
Does sister Kym need to draw attention to herself by making an awkward speech at the rehearsal dinner for Rachel's wedding? Then you know it'll come not after one or two supportive toasts but half a dozen, none substantially different from any other.
Director Jonathan Demme and writer Jenny Lumet (daughter of director Sidney Lumet) have said they wanted to give us the impression of a literal family movie: handheld camera, scenes that swerve from sudden drama to irrelevant small talk, tension that flares up and dissipates slowly. They've hit their target, but segment after segment ends abruptly or goes slack.
The dramatic moments do make an impact, and the tears they draw from you will scald.
Kym (Anne Hathaway) comes home from rehab for the wedding of Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) at the home of their dad and stepmom (Bill Irwin, Anna Deveare Smith). Kym was delving into alcohol and drugs even before her little brother died in her care, at a time when she was blitzed. As the ceremony draws nigh, she begins to hope for reconciliation with them and herself.
The filmmakers capture Kym's uneasiness around people less flawed than she, her resentful fear that every tiny act is judged, her pathetic need to be the center of the scene even on the biggest weekend of her sister's life. Hathaway burns in all sorts of colors – angry yellow, passionate red, melancholy blue – but shows just enough softness, especially toward her divorced mom (Debra Winger), that you'll ache for Kym.
Rachel, too, gets her say, and DeWitt is just as convincing in a less showy part. She's frustrated by Kym's neediness and her parents' assumption that Rachel can take care of herself without much help from them. (They raised their expectations for Rachel while lowering them for Kym.)
Demme and Lumet get sloppy about a few details in the sisters' relationship: I never believed that Rachel's family wouldn't work out seating for the reception until the weekend of the wedding, or that nobody thought to inform Kym she wasn't going to be maid of honor. But the emotional honesty between the girls makes up for any cinematic fudging of facts.
In the end, how you feel about the film will come down to whether you're at home with these folks, who really could live down the street from you in an upscale neighborhood. In life, I'd have eavesdropped on their interesting conversations – and when they started to bicker or babble, stepped politely into the back yard to get away.