Rachel Getting Married

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Venice Film Festival, In Competition

VENICE -- Jonathan Demme, last in Venice with "The Manchurian Candidate," breathes a breath of honest cinema into a lackluster competition with "Rachel Getting Married," a film whose lightness of touch rides a wave of family conflict to perfectly balance smiles and tears. Playing the spitfire sister of the bride, an award-worthy Anne Hathaway gives the story a clear central focus and offers Jenny Lumet's subtle script some wiggle room to set aside a lot of the usual genre conventions without losing the audience's attention. Though hardly a blockbuster comedy, the Sony Pictures Classics release should gather steam as the awards roll in and word-of-mouth spreads.

Like Robert Altman's 1978 "A Wedding," by which it is clearly inspired, this is a terrific piece of Americana, shot with great spontaneity by cinematographer Declan Quinn. Demme's parallel career as a documentarist spills over into the onscreen music making, improv-style acting and fluid hand-held camera work. They plunge viewers into the thick of Connecticut WASP Rachel Buchman's (Rosemarie DeWitt) wedding to black musician Sydney Williams (Tunde Adebimpe.)

Rachel's wayward sis Kym Buchman (Hathaway), who is fighting drug addiction, has been let out of rehab to attend the wedding. As she arrives, preparations are hot underway in the Buchmans' big family house in the country. Kym's overprotective father (Bill Irwin) treats her gingerly, but Rachel and her best friend Emma (Anisa George) concentrate on damage control as the tough, scarred, self-centered Kym bursts like a uncaged tiger upon their plans for the perfect wedding.

Largely offscreen, but very central to the drama, is Kym and Rachel's remarried mother, Abby (Debra Winger), whose aloofness has its roots in the painful past. As every guest at the wedding knows, and the audience comes to find out, the 16-year-old Kym was high on drugs and driving the car when a family tragedy occurred that no one has been able to forgive. Backed up by a top cast of actors, Hathaway masterfully navigates this complex role with verve, sarcastic one-liners and a controlled mix of toughness and fragility.

Shot through with smart humor, "Rachel" outlaws cliche. Sydney's good-looking best man, Kieran (Mather Zickel), whom Kym has previously spotted at a 12-step meeting for struggling addicts, materializes at the wedding like her perfect romantic partner. In a humorously unexpected twist, Kym immediately beds him in the attic and ignores him for the rest of the film. A whole romantic subplot is nipped in the bud, leaving the screenplay room to open family wounds and explore less predictable territory.

There are moments of heavy-hearted sadness and pain, set off by Zafar Tawil's violin theme, that strike an emotional chord; with great control, Demme balances the bits of melancholia against the loving encirclement of the wedding couple by their guests. Coming from modernly mixed ethnic backgrounds, they warmly represent funny, talented, articulate, liberal America (surely the fact that Sydney and Kieran live in Hawaii is no coincidence?) Raising the spirits is a lot of music-making and joyful song, including a just-right a cappella number by the groom as he and Rachel are about to be pronounced man and wife.

Clinica Estetico production in association with Marc Platt Prods.

Cast: Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Irwin, Tunde Adebimpe, Mather Zickel, Anna Deavere Smith, Anisa George, Debra Winger; Director: Jonathan Demme; Screenwriters: Jenny Lumet; Executive producers: Ilona Herzberg, Carol Cuddy; Producer: Jonathan Demme, Neda Armian, Marc Platt; Director of photography: Declan Quinn; Production designer: Ford Wheeler; Music: Zafar Tawil, Donald Harrison, Jr.; Costumes: Susan Lyall; Editor: Tim Squyres; Sales Agent: Sony Pictures Classics.

No MPAA rating, running time 111 minutes.

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