The family, as most do, has a veneer of cheerful normality masking its damage: Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), the bride, is gorgeous and thrilled to see her sister, at least until Kym brings up Rachel’s bout with bulimia within seconds of saying hello. Their father, Paul (Bill Irwin), is downright giddy but tracks Kym relentlessly, which later puts him in a no-win volley of ego-stroking when one or the other sibling accuses him of never paying attention to her. Paul is now happily married to Carol (Anna Deavere Smith), but the girls’ mother (Debra Winger) and the question of when or if she’ll show up is another cause of anxiety, for reasons not entirely made clear.
Hathaway, who broke out in The Princess Diaries and has largely continued her career with other chipper roles that pair well with her Disney-heroine eyes, is not the film’s only unusual casting choice. In what might be a hot topic within many other families—real or fictional—both Carol and Rachel’s fiance, Sidney (TV on the Radio singer Tunde Adebimpe), are black. Yet no mention is made of it; a reaction from anybody that these relationships are anything but perfectly normal isn’t even implied. It’s an inspired move: Here’s a group of people who are so open-minded, so chill, yet so deeply fucked up. At least on the bride’s side, anyway—Sidney’s family seems like pure joy, with his mother (Carol-Jean Lewis) giving an especially lovely speech about how she prayed for the arrival of Rachel and imagines that the celebration is what heaven must be like.
Jenny Lumet, Sidney Lumet’s daughter, makes a stellar debut, filling her script with dialogue that flows naturally whether the characters are pulling the scabs off old wounds, awkwardly toasting the couple, or making small talk. They mostly do the former, and the resentment that Kym’s presence stirs up is palpable. Then there’s her own instability, which is what makes Hathaway’s performance such a marvel: Her Kym doesn’t have to say a word—though she does, and usually way too many of them for everyone’s comfort—to belie her personal demons. The highs and lows of an addict and depressive immediately register on Hathaway’s face, whether she’s smiling so broadly during the blissful moments that take her out of her head, quietly crumbling at bits of surprising news, such as Rachel’s impending move to Hawaii, or going numb after a violent outburst. Kym’s swings may seem melodramatic, but they’re never inauthentic.
For all its misery, Rachel Getting Married has enough warmth and genuineness to keep you sympathetic to and interested in its characters, even at their most selfish. Demme’s docudrama techniques may not be what pull you into this story, but his timing—for about three-quarters of the film, at least—is: The director knows just how long to linger, fly-on-the-wall style, on a scene to make it feel organic, then cuts away just as it threatens to get boring. Unfortunately, Demme gets indulgent with the film’s late chapters, particularly with the actual wedding and reception, both of which go on way too long and are so soaked with merriment it all begins to feel forced. Worse, the focus nearly completely shifts away from Kym. It may be what Rachel and the family wanted in the first place, but the nuptials aren’t where the meat of this story lies.
Days and Clouds Directed by Silvio Soldini
The disintegration of a marriage is the subject of Days and Clouds, an Italian film by director Silvio Soldini (2000’s Bread and Tulips) that involves significantly fewer people than Rachel Getting Married but is full of just as much bile. Elsa (Margherita Buy) and Michele (Antonio Albanese) are living a comfortable and mostly content life, their biggest family feuds involving their grown daughter’s choice of career and boyfriend. With Michele making a good salary, Elsa has been able to go back to graduate school to study art restoration. She’s just earned her degree, so Michele throws an elaborate surprise party for her. The following morning, when Elsa’s nursing a hangover, Michele breaks the news that he hasn’t worked in two months.
Naturally, Elsa freaks, and her respect for her husband starts to erode. She’s not grateful that he kept the news from her so she could focus on her studies. She wishes he hadn’t spent so much money on the party. And she really can’t fathom why he insists on paying for everyone’s dinner when they go out with friends, especially when he’s told her they’re going to have to sell their home to get by. As Elsa switches into survival mode, taking first a telemarketing job and later moonlighting as a secretary and giving up her restoration project, Michele continues to let his pride exacerbate the situation. This interview isn’t worth going to; it’s beneath him to take classes. And he must keep spending money to save face.
The couple’s increasing distance develops so realistically, watching them feels voyeuristic. (Not to mention stomach-turning.) Their bickering and accusations are impressively natural considering that three writers plus Soldini are credited with the script; more cooks usually means more starch. The performances are also raw and unselfconscious: Elsa’s mounting fury is more explosive because Buy shows her struggling with restraint, while Albanese adroitly expresses Michele’s sense of emasculation, seemingly becoming smaller and weaker the more he lies around their cramped new apartment and falls deeper into a morass of self-pity.
As bad as their relationship gets, however, Days and Clouds suggests that the marriage might survive. The film smartly doesn’t go so far as to wrap things up with a bow; the anger lingers even as the credits roll. But Elsa and Michele’s story is such a deft study of what can make a relationship go to pieces that it’s a satisfying watch in spite of all the bitterness.