This is a film that is uncertain of its genre. It starts out and has the feel throughout of a slice of life movie, yet, underneath, a great tragedy is struggling to get out, and, at the end, it bursts into a kind of feel-good film.
In Stamford, Connecticut, Kym (Anne Hathaway) is given a weekend pass from her drug rehab center to attend the wedding of her older sister, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) to Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe). She is picked up by her father, Paul (Bill Irwin) and stepmother, Carol (Anna Deavere Smith), so the presence of two inter-racial marriages is brought front and center. As if that wasn’t interesting enough, the wedding has a East Indian theme, with a group of fascinating Middle-eastern musicians who provide a kind of world music backdrop to the action and featuring Robyn Hitchcock, singing and performing.
Right from the beginning, Rachel and Kym clash and it is a battle that will carry until nearly the conclusion of the film. Kym is totally self-absorbed and constantly turns what should be a joyous occasion for Rachel into a story about her own problems. Recognizing the Best Man, Kieran (Mather Zickel), from Narcotics Anonymous, she has sex with him and he reveals that she is not to be Maid of Honor. Rachel has asked her best friend, Emma (Anisa George) for that honor and Kym becomes extremely upset, thinking that it should have been her. Exasperated, Rachel asks Emma to step down and let Kym be Maid of Honor.
At the rehearsal dinner, where we finally meet their mother, Abby (Debra Winger), amid a great many toasts, Kym apologizes to Rachel for her screwed up life, but afterwards Rachel viciously attacks her for making the wedding all about her and not about Rachel and Sidney.
The next time Kym goes to her Narcotics Anonymous meeting, she explains how, when she was totally messed up on drugs, she drove off a bridge and killed her little brother, Ethan, who could not get out of his child seat. Once this is revealed, we see the real tragedy emerging: the blame from Rachel and the protectiveness of Paul now make perfect sense. Kym’s inability to forgive herself is at the center of the movie. It shouldn’t be any surprise that the very best part of the movie is the wedding itself.
First, the good news.
All of the acting is stunningly good, especially the two leads, Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt, who deliver such a natural feel to their characters that they are absolutely beyond a doubt believable and empathetic. You really care about them and what happens to them and you root for them to solve their problems and find a way out of their problems. There were times when one or the other of them nearly brought me to tears with their beautiful performances. The supporting cast is also incredible. Bill Irwin and Debra Winger are so honest and believable as the divorced parents of the girls that not once do you question their action. Anna Deavere Smith is also terrific and every supporting character has the solid feel of being a real person.
Filmed in a cinema verité style using hand-held cameras, sparked by extensive improvisation by the actors, the film sparkles as a slice of life movie. This is the way people talk and act, in kind of a haphazard way that just doesn’t feel scripted at all. Much of the credit for this success belongs to director Jonathan Demme, who urged the cast to be acting all of the time as a cadre of cameras worked their way around the set and the musicians improvised a soundtrack that was recorded at the same time as the dialogue.
This film was written by Jenny Lumet, daughter of terrific director Sidney Lumet and granddaughter of Lena Horne. A middle school drama teacher, she has attempted several screenplays, but this is her first effort actually produced. Since I haven’t seen the screenplay—and since director Jonathan Demme depends a great deal on actor improvisation in this movie—it is impossible for me to judge the quality of the script.
That being said, the film has a few obvious problems and I’m inclined to ascribe them more to Demme’s direction and control over the editing than Lumet’s screenplay.
At one hour and 53 minutes, this movie is at least 30 minutes too long. Demme filmed long, improvised scenes at the rehearsal dinner, the musical portion of the dinner, and at the wedding itself where he simply fell in love with the ensemble and included much, much more than was needed in the final cut. Everything that takes away from Kym’s and Rachels conflict should have been cut down to size. A sampling would have done the job and put us back soundly into the main story. Sometimes what is left on the cutting room floor will determine whether a movie is good or great and I’m inclined to think that is the case here. If it had been tightened up, then perhaps the tragedy and feel-good ending would have come together to make a truly great film, but the slice of life aspect overcomes everything else and makes the film really drag in places.
Anne Hathaway was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in the film and she certainly deserved it. In fact, there could have been multiple acting nominations because all of the actors are just that good. Much of the directing is also excellent and all of the music is amazing. All of the ingredients for a great film are present.
Ultimately, I think someone needed to step forward and say, “This is a about Kym and Rachel and we’re going to focus and hone the movie to that purpose.” The ending would have been much more poignant if it had been the natural outcome of a drama built steadily in that direction. Perhaps the slice of life aspect of the movie would have suffered some, but I honestly believe that this movie has a great deal more in it and that great deal should have been more tightly focused.