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Bob Vergara ęSniscak Productions, Inc. Couresty Sony Pictures Classics.
BLENDED FAMILY: Kym (Anne Hathaway) sows discord at the wedding of her sister, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), and Sidney (Tunde Adebimbe, center), with best man Kieran (Mather Zickel) at right.

Something Mild

The art direction overwhelms the emotions in Jonathan Demme's 'Rachel Getting Married'

By Richard von Busack

MIXING TWO great flavors that don't belong together, Rachel Getting Married has Jonathan Demme trying out a French New Wave–style profile of a guilty prodigal daughter. He stages this intimate character study as what Spike Lee calls a "joint." More than just slang for a film, I would interpret that term as referring to Lee's work at its most dense, as social dramas acted out against a thick blend of audio mix, boutique clothing and art direction. One of the best examples is Demme's own Something Wild. The art direction isn't so distracting in that meaty, sexy love triangle, any more than it is in Demme's tasty, trifling remake of Charade. The surfaces and the audio wallpaper of Rachel Getting Married are maybe too enticing. Rarely have I been so overwhelmed with the feeling of "Oh God, I must have this house, even if all the people in it have to get out, except for Robyn Hitchcock."

The setting is a country wedding in early fall at a rambling Connecticut Victorian. In the genteel funky interiors, we see more acoustic musical instruments scattered around than in a Lark in the Morning store. Rachel Getting Married is more of a jam session than a movie, with the muffler-wrapped Hitchcock leading an alfresco musical group in the back yard.

For reasons unexplained, the theme is Indian chic. The bridesmaids come wrapped in lilac-colored saris, and the centerpiece is a Wedgwood cake with decorative elephant and howdah. Paul, the lord of the manor (Bill Irwin), delivers a line about how the duties of a father of the bride are twofold: to grin like a jack-o'-lantern and to keep writing checks. His wife, Carol (Anna Deavere Smith), has even fewer duties; she just chokes back tears and looks maternal. Irwin does a drier but still rather sticky version of the Robin Williams father sailing through hidden grief. He's so abstracted that you never get answers to questions like: Who are these people? How do you get a house like this?

The daughter, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), is marrying into an African American family, although the groom is as unstereotypical as can be. There's a reliable joke in the movies where someone passionately recites song lyrics to show what a yutz they are; Reed Birney does it beautifully with "Cherish" by the Association in Sam Rami's Crimewave. At the point of vow-exchange, the groom, Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), recites "Unknown Legend" by Neil Young.

The moment is meant to be serious but what a weird, weird choice. The song (recorded in 1992) is a little old for a young man, and it doesn't have much to do with the character of the bride, a gentle psychologist who is aptly defined as a saint. Young's song concerns a Harley-ridin' waitress. We know this song appears because of Demme's concert film Neil Young: Heart of Gold—it's a loud self-reference. Similarly heartfelt and awkward is a shoutout to Our Boys in Mesopotamia. A relation on the groom's side of the family shows up in uniform; "We want you back home," Paul tells the vet.

The prenuptial dinner unfolds as a good-feeling harmonious blur, set in a room lined with silvery Russian icons. "This is what heaven is like," says an aged lady. All the disharmony is embodied by the film's real main character: the witchy sister Kym, a former model–turned–train wreck, just out of the latest stretch of rehab.

As Kym, Anne Hathaway deglams seriously. Her hair is self-cut and indifferently washed. She chain-smokes and croaks out her put-downs with a crowlike voice. But in repose nothing can take the shock of beauty away from the wide mouth and wider dark eyes. In moments of reacting, she nails it down. Hathaway is a fine reactress, and that's a start.

Her toast to the bride, where she introduces herself as "Shiva the Destroyer," is a good sharp joke, considering the Indianoisieries of this event. In this film of Jaglomian looseness, Hathaway wires things up. And Kym holds her own in a clash with her mom, Paul's first wife. Debra Winger plays this silky queen of denial in a welcome return to the screen. Winger proves herself as an actress too tough for the kind of films they make in 2008.

Still, Rachel Getting Married ends up as a clash of atmosphere and star. Ultimately, our sympathies have to be with the former, with the people lucky enough to bathe in this distractingly rich eclecticism shot by Declan Quinn with the self-declared intention of creating "the most beautiful home movie ever made." The film's strategy is smart on one level. It doesn't blame the family for Kym's raging addiction. Still, there's none of that sense of the nibbling forlornness that made the similar Margot at the Wedding more believable.

The way Demme sets up this marvelous party you have to ask what kind of close-minded person could resist such a polycultural tornado. The answer: some will. Rachel Getting Married is a little out of it. One scene of a midnight snack, where they serve slices of watermelon on fine china, seems symbolic of the way Demme serves ups slices of Third World culture.

The testimonials at the wedding seem endless, discursive; the dancing goes on for a long piece after the emotional climax of the film. Jenny (daughter of Sidney) Lumet's script is sometimes vague. Truth is, there's always more than one pooper at any party. The soldier, for instance—what does he think of all these turbans at an American wedding?

Movie Times RACHEL GETTING MARRIED (R; 117 min.), directed by Jonathan Demme, written by Jenny Lumet, photographed by Declan Quinn and starring Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt, opens Oct. 10.

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