The Jonathan Demme touch, like the famed "Lubitsch touch," isn't easy to define, because it isn't based on any clear stylistic signatures or some uniform, easily recognizable approach to varied material. At his best—and his new movie, Rachel Getting Married, finds him in peak form—Demme is simply the most humane of directors, capable of projecting warmth, vibrancy, and compassion without the labored earnestness of someone like John Sayles. One of the wonderful things about Rachel Getting Married is that it has no villains; all the major characters have the best intentions yet they can't keep from hurting each other anyway. And as they all convene for the ultimate family affair, a wedding, there's a heartbreaking tension between the bond that brings them together in celebration and the perhaps irreparable fissures that threaten to sabotage the weekend.
Showing depths she's never come close to suggesting before, Anne Hathaway plays an addict newly sprung from rehab and headed to suburban Connecticut for sister Rosemarie DeWitt's wedding weekend. It's a volatile situation: Hathaway has long ago lost everyone's trust and confidence in her recovery, and for her, being around family makes her more vulnerable to backsliding, not less. In a weekend that's supposed to be all about the bride, Hathaway's self-absorption promises to be a huge distraction if she can't pull herself together. Though her father (Bill Irwin) touchingly attempts to cheerlead the family back on its feet, their problems run deep, exacerbated by ex-wife Debra Winger's presence and a past tragedy that still lingers.
Based on that description, Rachel Getting Married sounds like a joyless dirge, but it's actually far from it, and a lot of that is owed to the way Demme harnesses the genuine love and good feeling that buoys the occasion. If he ever retires from directing, he could have a great side business as a wedding planner: The rehearsal dinner, the ceremony, and the reception are brimming with sweet multi-culti touches and great music, including performances by the likes of Robyn Hitchcock and TV On The Radio's Tunde Adebimpe. (The cutting of the cake, for one, may be the most moving moment in the whole movie.) With an easy, freeflowing style—owing partially to the Dogme-style approach that has led some to compare the film to The Celebration—Demme captures the group dynamic of the wedding party, with its seismic shifts in mood from celebratory to melancholy and back again. It may be painful at times, but Rachel Getting Married sure is one heck of a party.