Review Date: 1-7-09
Release Date: 10-3-08
Runtime: 113 minutes
Period: Contemporary, 2008
Costume Designer: Susan Lyall
Rachel Getting Married is a film that has polarized its audience. People I know either loved it or hated it; one even said she was “allergic” to it. There seems to be no grey area when it comes to affection for this film. Arguably, Rachel Getting Married introduces some of the most shamelessly self-absorbed, narcissistic, grating, selfish, irritating characters ever committed to celluloid. But in the end (curses, Jonathan Demme!) we wind up caring about them in spite of ourselves.
The story is told with a lot of hand-held camera work. If you watch this movie in the theater, be sure to sit closer to the back, as some of the hand-held motion will cause you to re-think your lunch. It’s the Blair Witch-effect. I watched the film on DVD, and it was fine. The use of this “verité” device is important, however, because it makes us feel like we are actually present for the events that unfold. We bear witness to the events and people in this film so closely that it is at times uncomfortable. This proximity is perhaps what turned some of my friends off about the film. These are not likable characters, and to spend two hours with them in that environment is an intense experience.
The movie centers on Kym (Anne Hathaway), who has been released on a weekend pass from rehab. Her dad (Bill Irwin) and stepmother Carol (Anna Deveare Smith) cart her away in their Mercedes station wagon to their large home in Connecticut, where her sister Rachel awaits. Rachel is getting married that weekend, and Kym is home just in time to take part in the ceremony.
The rest of the movie is made up of the events leading up to the wedding: the bridal dress fitting, the brides maid dress fittings, the rehearsal dinner, setting up the tent for the wedding, arranging the seating, getting the hair and nails done, and then the wedding and the reception. Sound clean and easy? Hardly!
This is a family fraught with pain, emotional damage, narcissism, neglect and loss. Kym is in rehab because she was addicted to painkillers, among other things, for years. We eventually, subtly, discover many details that color-in her character for us – that her rehab was court-ordered (in that she is required to urinate into a cup before Narc-Anon meetings), that she appeared on the cover of Seventeen Magazine at one point, that she had a car accident while high on drugs that killed her younger brother Ethan, that her parents divorced thereafter, that she immortalized her younger brother in a tattoo on her shoulder, that she hates and resents her sister; that she loves her sister.
This movie is complex in its layers and very sneaky and clever in its character development. It is difficult to describe, in linear fashion, what happens in this film because of the layers in each scene – information is dropped like flower petals. If you perceive these little bits and understand them, you understand the subtext of the scene, and of the character. It’s tricky, and it’s pretty brilliant.
Kym first greets her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) as she is being fit for her wedding gown (which is actually an Indian-inspired sari). Meanwhile, live music is always being played in the background by someone sitting with a sitar, or violin, or what-have-you. Kym comments (in typical sisterly fashion) about how skinny her sister looks, but in something that verges on a competitive jab. Kym tries to get the car keys from her dad to “go to a meeting”, but her dad refuses, and she rides a bicycle.
She urinates in a cup, and then walks in to a Narc-Anon meeting in progress. She listens, does not share, but observes a younger, handsome guy Kieren (Mather Zickel) at the meeting. She gets back home, and finds that the younger, handsome guy is actually the best man to Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), Rachel’s fiancé. Kym and Kieren sneak off and have compulsive, unblushing empathy sex.
Kym turns up for her bridesmaid’s gown fitting, and confronts her sister, angrily, about why she didn’t choose her to be the maid of honor – she is, after all, her sister. Rachel, frustrated and put on the spot, asks the snarling, patrician Emma (Anisa George) if she would step down – not because she wants Kym to have the honor, but to get her to shut up and stop being a nuisance. Rachel is in full ownership of the wedding being “her day”, and she makes the concession not without pain.
The rehearsal dinner is a scene that goes on for a long time, with many toasts and songs and the like. The preamble to the dinner includes performances by Tamyra Gray, Donald Harrison Jr., and a two-piece rock/jazz ensemble. The dinner begins, and Kym is seated near the end of the long table, far away from Rachel, Sidney, Kieren and Emma. Voicing her displeasure with the seating arrangement, Kym wedges herself between Rachel and Sidney, talking and eating their food, until magically, their elusive mother Abby (Debra Winger) shows up. At this point, the party stops and the focus is directed on Abby. Abby is ill at ease upon arrival – it seems she is an almost uninvited guest.
The dinnertime toasts begin. Emma’s “maid of honor” toast singles out Rachel as a great driver, a willful zinger sent in Kym’s direction. Kym takes the microphone to speak, and (as one of my friends used to say) you could hear a rat piss on a cotton ball. A medicated cotton ball. Kym’s speech is all about her – all about her rehab, her making of amends, and her contrition for her bad, drug-addled behavior. Rachel seethes and fumes. It’s supposed to be her night, her wedding, and her little sister has come in to mess it all up.
They get back to the house and Rachel goes nuts on Kym. They have a very tense, very unpleasant fight (shot mostly in silhouette – genius), and it is clear that these sisters hate each other. When more people start to arrive home, the girls move to the kitchen, where Rachel, in the arms of Sidney, announces to everyone that she is pregnant. This incenses Kym, who becomes hysterical, “That is SO unfair!” when Rachel steals her thunder. Rachel then confides to her dad that she wishes Ethan were here.
The next day, Rachel is talking with her mother about the wedding. Abby seems very reluctant to get too excited over this marriage, or the wedding – something always seems to be squarely out of place for her, and her malaise is palpable. Rachel narcissistically says that she hopes that the task of “doing the flowers” would be enough for her mother. Abby gives her a beautiful ring that used to belong to her grandmother. It feels like Abby might be medicating herself in an effort to not feel the pain she has endured for too long.
Meanwhile, Kieren and Kym have gone to a Narc-Anon meeting together. Kym shares her story – she is nine months sober, and that at age sixteen, while high on Percocet, she crashed her car by driving off a bridge. She couldn’t release her younger brother from his car seat, and he drowned. She can’t forgive herself. It begins to rain.
Kym arrives home to Emma, Rachel, and their dad doing the seating arrangement using small board-game pieces. Kym’s piece keeps being put further and further away from the bride’s table, and it is not lost on Kym that she is not necessarily wanted. Rachel calls her father into the kitchen for a heart to heart. “It’s my wedding!” she cries. She’s mad that her dad is defending Rachel. The weekend has turned into a war of the egos. Sidney enters the kitchen and finishes loading the dishwasher. Rachel’s dad tells him that he’s doing it all wrong, and they engage in a “dishwasher load-off” competition that made my eyes roll backward in my head, all the way around. Dad needs some more dishes, because he loaded them in a more efficient manner. Kym pulls down some dishes from the cupboard, and dad stops in his tracks at the sight of the plastic baby plate with the name “Ethan” on it. The scene screeches to a halt, Kym swallowing herself into her own guilt.
The girls go to a hair salon – Rachel is having her hair washed in the background and Kym is having her hair highlighted in the foreground – the shot is amazing. Kym is approached by a stylist at the salon who (totally breaking her anonymity) tells her, rather loudly, how inspirational she was to him in rehab, how her strength – getting through sexual abuse perpetrated by her uncle and the anorexia of her sister – inspired him and gave him courage. Rachel overhears this, and is furious. Kym made it all up; she lied to everyone in rehab. Rachel drives off, wet hair and all, a mad wet hen.
Rachel gets home and complains to her dad about Kym – tells him that she lied in rehab. Kym arrives home and the three of them get into it. Kym says that she’s tired of all the judging, and Rachel goes after her for Ethan’s death. Dad and Carol break down in tears. Kym takes off.
It’s dinnertime, and Kym is nowhere to be found. Kieren volunteers to look for her, but Kym is at her mother’s house. They get into a heated argument about the circumstances surrounding Ethan’s death. Abby slaps Kym across the face. After a moment, Kym slaps Abby across the face, bolts out of the house, and takes off in the car. Driving in the rain, and emotionally wrecked, Kym speeds up and crashes the car into a boulder in the woods. The airbag goes off, and it appears Kym has survived the crash.
Joggers discover the car in the morning. Soon, police and emergency services are on the scene. Kym is fine, but the car is not. They drop Kym off at her dad’s house, where the wedding day is just about to start. Kym has a huge black eye, and when she arrives at her sister’s room, Rachel takes her in without a word, and bathes her gently (literally, in the bathtub), pausing to study the tattoo of “Ethan” on her shoulder. It is a tender, redemptive moment.
The wedding gets underway – an East-Indian-inspired theme – it is a cloud of people, flowers, candles and music. At the altar, Sidney sings Unknown Legend by Neil Young, a capella, to his bride. It’s beautiful (Tunde Adebimpe is part of the band TV on the Radio, so he knows what he’s doing). The ceremony is completed with the exchange of rings, and the reception begins.
From the moment the reception begins, there is only one minute and twenty seconds of dialogue in twelve minutes of screen time. In the end, we are guests at the reception, breathing the rarefied air of live performances by Robyn Hitchcock, Sister Carol East, and DJ Anita Sarko, offset by a Brazilian drumming chorus and three scantily clad “Rio” carnival-style dancers. Meanwhile, Abby sits on the sidelines, petting the dog.
The spell is broken when Kym approaches Rachel and Sidney, and discovers that their mother is leaving. Abby says that she has an out-of-town engagement the following day, and that they should come over to her house tomorrow morning for gossip. But wait, no bride gets up early on her post-wedding morning for anything. It’s a lame and insincere attempt to connect, and Rachel is pissed. Rachel grabs them for a hug – mother and two daughters – and holds on longer than any of them are comfortable. Abby exits. Kym tries to talk to her mother before the car pulls away, but is sidelined by her dad.
The next day, Kym collects some pictures of Ethan from her room, packs her things and makes a break for it. Kieren gives her his card, and they briefly kiss. Kym is met out front by one of the rehab hospital nurses we saw in the beginning of the movie. Kym doesn’t intend to say goodbye to anyone, but Rachel catches them as they are leaving – the sisters hug, and it seems possible that all is forgiven.
The costumes in this film are really interesting because they do not look like costumes AT ALL. Every character in this film feels so real – and certainly the voyeuristic camera work aids this – it is almost as if we are watching a documentary. It feels like we are there, bearing witness to all of this craziness. It is absorbing and deeply emotional, and it is easy to forget that these are actually actors. All of the performances are first rate. Anne Hathaway is out-of-this-world good – we have never seen her this way before – unpredictable, scary, vulnerable, vile. This film is a career-changer for her, certainly. Rosemarie DeWitt is especially effective as the uptight, “MY DAY!” kind of bride, pretending to be unaffected, but harboring profound resentment and anger.
The supporting cast is excellent as well, particularly the two mothers – Debra Winger and Anna Deveare Smith. Debra Winger is excruciatingly awkward in their world. It feels like she is the back-sliding Amish outcast who has been shunned, though it’s only coming from within herself. Anna Deveare Smith only has but a few lines. However, her pervasive presence, and her quiet enduring support of her husband, is heartbreaking. This is very, very good work all around. The camera department should be commended for a supporting role as well, because it really felt like we were there, behind the lens, having a glass of wine with these crazy people. The art department also pulled out the stops – from the Misfits poster in Kym’s old bedroom to the elaborate floral work in the wedding tent, everything was exquisite. Excellent work.
As for the costumes, as natural as they are, Susan Lyall and her crew worked their storytelling magic. The two sisters, Rachel and Kym, are always opposed in some visual way (color, shape). Kym’s costumes are mostly black or dark grey, loose and boxy. Rachel’s costumes are for the most part white, off-white, oatmeal-colored and more fitted to the body. Whenever they are together, the visual contrast in the two is evident. At their first meeting (bridal dress fitting) Rachel wears her off-white silk sari; Kym wears a schlumpy black long sweater over leggings, pants or jeans – hard to tell what kind of pants, but the contrast is evident.
The sisters have an argument about the color of the saris that the bridesmaids will wear. Kym hates the color lilac, and that is the color that Rachel (or perhaps Emma) has chosen for the bridal party. Kym is reminded that she once wore a lilac cat-face sweater on the cover of Seventeen Magazine, to which she replies, “Well, they PAID me… and I was on horse tranquilizers, so…” As Emma and Rachel are swathed in lilac, Rachel observes them, wearing a greenish Bohemian top, the colors contrasting nicely again.
At the rehearsal dinner, Rachel wears an austere, classic black cocktail dress – tank-style, kind of a fitted sheath. Rachel wears a green drapey silk dress with a white pattern. It kind of looks as though it might be 1980s vintage, like something Crystal Carrington might have worn to breakfast, but paired with Kym’s hatchet-cut bob haircut and raccoon eyes, it has much more of a subversive “fuck you” vibe to it. It’s simply brilliant. The questions is: where does the dress come from? If Kym is out for just the weekend from rehab, is the dress from her childhood bedroom closet? Was it her mom’s at one point? Note: Emma wears lilac at the rehearsal dinner, another nod to the notion that the lilac saris were Emma’s idea in the first place, not Rachel’s?
The following day, the day of the hair-salon incident, into the huge fight where Rachel brings up Ethan, Rachel wears a white (or off-white) peasant blouse. Rachel wears a big black tunic-looking top, necklace and leggings or slim pants. All black. If you’re paying attention, you’re smelling what the costume department is cooking!
When the police and Emergency services come to pick her up (after she has crashed the car) I couldn’t help but notice that the uniforms on the EMTs were actual “Stamford EMS” – logoed garments. I wonder if they had local law-enforcement assistance and/or participation. It would have been a great help. I will ask, when given the opportunity. Stand by!
In the end, Kym gets to wear a grey sari instead of the offensive lilac. Kym also gets to stand up with her sister as her maid of honor. The other bridesmaids wear lilac, and Rachel looks lovely in her ivory sari. The use of grey on Kym indicates a “coming around”, in my opinion – penitence on Kym’s part, and a concession on Rachel’s part. Lovely.
I must say that this film has some of the best jewelry I’ve seen in ages! So often we leave jewelry to the last minute to match it with the costume, but here it appears that the jewelry was the jumping-off point for some of the costumes. The Indian earrings that the bridal party wears – stunning! And these earrings don’t take away from the face of the actor/s. Anna Deveare Smith has the best jewelry of the film, however – oooh, so elegant. Her jewelry looks like it came from a very cool art gallery, not a clothing boutique or department store. It was a really beautiful touch. I noticed that at the wedding, every day player, background player, every single one, was carefully accessorized. At the wedding, Sidney’s mom wears two necklaces – totally separate in idea, texture, color and weight, but worn together, they looked beautiful and intentionally paired. Nice! The ring that Abby gives to Rachel – gorgeous! Where did they find it?! Stay tuned. This costume crew demonstrated an attention to detail that made a crucial difference to the film. The film feels real because of the care and effort they put into these details.
For all the wedding movies that have ever been made, this one certainly stands alone. It is a beautiful film, heavy on ambience, drenched in the tumultuous vicissitudes of familial relationships. We’ve never seen a film like this before – so real and unapologetic as to be uncomfortable – eschewing all the preciousness and pretense that often comes with wedding films and art films, respectively. Rachel Getting Married is a great and stylish movie, enhanced by art in all its forms: camera, set decoration, music, dance, and especially costume. You may not love the characters, but you will probably learn to feel for them. Job well done!