Rachel Getting Married

Before deciding whether or not to see Rachel Getting Married, be advised that it completes Anne Hathaway’s transition from Disney princess to drama queen. This is not a grievance. Hathaway knows what she’s doing here, and it’s a pleasure to watch, even when it’s painful to watch.

As the movie begins, what she’s doing are trite introductory ministrations. She smokes. She viciously quips. She darts her saucer eyes. If at first Hathaway doesn’t seem authentically ravaged enough for her role — as Kym, an addict on a weekend furlough from rehab to attend and inevitably disrupt her older sister’s wedding — there is at least the unnerving sense that it’ll only be a matter of time. In movies and in life, the engine of all family-function drama is anticipation.

What Hathaway understands remarkably well is Kym’s wounded soul. Though still a very young woman, she’s tormented by an old, tragedy-induced grief (it involves the death of a child), and exasperated to think that she’ll always be its captive. Her family is exasperated too, to think that Kym’s recovery will be just as demanding as were the early manifestations of her addiction. She got messed up on drugs, but the substance Kym most craves and abuses is attention.

With that, plus a few therapeutic platitudes, in mind, she is pleased to point out that her sister (Rosemarie DeWitt) has food issues, her father (Bill Irwin) has trust issues, her mother (Debra Winger) has parenting issues and, in a rambling rehearsal-dinner toast, that she herself has issue issues. This marvelous little monologue — arcing so nimbly from desperate to spiteful to cringe-inducingly solicitous to weary to fumblingly open-hearted and ultimately sympathetic — probably will be Hathaway’s Oscar clip.

Some credit should go to debut screenwriter Jenny Lumet (the daughter of director Sidney) too. If Lumet’s sometimes overcooked drama becomes a bother, it’s only because she’s otherwise so humanely, unaffectedly perceptive. When an impromptu dishwasher-loading contest between the groom and the bride’s father turns up a trigger of a painful memory, it seems flimsy and cheap. But when Rachel calculatedly blurts an announcement of her pregnancy to win a fight with Kym, the emotional complexity of the moment is profound and devastating. These characters know how to drive their own movie; they don’t need any nudging.

Which of course is why director Jonathan Demme had it in mind, as he told the New York Times recently, to shoot Rachel Getting Married as “the most beautiful home movie ever made,” with Declan Quinn’s handheld, hi-def video cinematography just aesthetically stripped-down enough to impart the needed aura of intimacy and immediacy.

It also helps that the movie is so superbly cast. As the weekend is not just about Kym, the appeal is not just about Hathaway; everyone in the family delivers an irreplaceable-seeming performance, without ever stealing the show. Winger in particular, who’s been away from movies for a while, makes an auspicious, shrewd return. And even relative supporting players, like Tunde Adebimpe as the groom, and Mather Zickel as the best man and a fellow 12-stepper whom Kym impulsively beds, tend toward gracious, understated vitality.

Yes, that is TV on the Radio frontman Tunde Adebimpe. Be further advised that Demme, who excels at concert documentaries, also makes an excuse of this movie’s central occasion — a well-funded, racially harmonious multicultural fantasy, as it turns out — to fill it up with all sorts of musicians and gather great footage of them performing. The results are hip and seductive.

In fact, as the story jitters and meanders along, it becomes clear that even the dysfunction is tasteful. Rachel Getting Married was shot and is nonspecifically set in the leafy and lovely suburb of Stamford, Connecticut, where movies apparently martyr young children to the cause of genteel family drama regularly (see also Reservation Road). And, although arguably less cautious of indulgence and melodrama than writer-director Noah Baumbach’s similarly plotted Margot at the Wedding, Lumet and Demme’s film is more genial.

What matters in this case is how the movie compares not to other movies but to life. That’s how it gets under the skin and why it’s a breakthrough for Hathaway, who so skillfully evokes the paradoxically comforting and dissociating regression of returning to a messy nest.