This feel-good/feel-bad drama about a dysfunctional family – whose most troubled member, nine-months sober junkie daughter Kym (Anne Hathaway in an award-worthy performance), shows up at her sister's wedding only to open old wounds – might be confused with the vaguely similar Margot at the Wedding, Demme's picture is nowhere as chilly as Noah Baumbach's. In fact, with its handheld approach (some of the "guests" film part of the proceedings) and flurry of entertainers captured mid-performance, Rachel falls somewhere between Thomas Vinterberg's amazing The Celebration and Jennifer Jason Leigh's OK The Anniversary Party.
I liked Rachel in general, but I had a lot of problems with it.
For starters, Demme and his cast and crew spend far too much time on the festivities' many musical interludes. At times it feels like a concert film, and at two hours, it's about thirty minutes too long. Demme forgets that it's not really that enjoyable to watch complete strangers whooping it up. One could argue that this is intentional – look at us having fun, while you sit there alone in the dark! – as this is how black sheep Kym must be feeling around all these unbearably happy yuppies. But I suspect Demme just thinks he's showing you the most awesome wedding ever.
A sort of racial utopia exists within this extended family, which is refreshing to see, but after a while it comes across as too earnest, too politically correct. The screenplay is by Jenny Lumet, whose own upbringing as the biracial daughter of director Sidney Lumet and granddaughter of the legendary Lena Horne surely informed this ethnically harmonious, comfortably wealthy group, but it still reads as a little disingenuous.
The film never even mentions what the groom's or bride's family must do for a living in order to have literally dozens of notable musicians – from Robyn Hitchcock to Fab Five Freddy to a Brazilian samba troupe – perform for them. Thus it smacks more of Demme's own connections than it does any of the characters'.
I wound up yearning for the brutally honest Kym to lay the smackdown on all these phony multicultural feel-good theatrics, since her family is just as broken as she is. Alas, said smackdown never comes, but that doesn't detract from Hathaway's stirring, no-nonsense performance, or indeed the work of her costars. Lumet has written rich characters with mind-bogglingly complicated relationships, and she offers no tidy endings for any of them. For that she should be lauded, and it almost forgives the ain't-we-hip bloat of Demme's direction.