Rachel Getting Married opens Friday in select theaters

In Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, Anne Hathaway plays Kym, a self-involved recovering junkie who comes home for her sister Rachel’s wedding. Kym blames her insecurities on her family, even as she tries to make amends with Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt, whose performance is near perfect). While Demme’s direction and the flawless cast give the movie a strong emotional impact, Rachel Getting Married is a film at odds with itself. Fortunately, there is plenty of action away from the central narrative, and that’s where the most effective bits can be found. But some of the plot machinations are heavy-handed by comparison, and they tug down an otherwise nimble film.

The script has no traces of narrative ingenuity, and the plot is not likely to startle youeven as it drops what Kym might describe as “tectonic bits of information.” Writer Jenny Lumet finds one dynamic in each of the principal relationships and hammers away at it. Some of the wedding speeches and incidental snippets of conversation seem improvised, and they are effortlessly touching. Elsewherewhere you can be sure the dialogue is scriptedcharacters state too plainly their core feelings and motivations. Lumet has a clear sense of her characters but can’t move things forward, and their conflicts lack dimension. Arguments in Rachel don’t escalate to epiphany or intense conflict as much as start there. Characters punch out variants of their opening statements until someone invades the frame and takes the scene in another direction.

And that’s exactly when Rachel is at its best, when the repetitive face-offs are interrupted by the swarm of ensemble actors. Most of the movie takes place at the wedding house, and it’s a location alive with family members, friends, musiciansmore guests than the place can hold. People in the background are constantly coming and going, hovering around rooms where Kym and Rachel are fighting with each other or their parents. Rachel pulls her father into the kitchen, where they revisit an argument they’ve already had. But when enough people stumble into the kitchen, a dishwasher-loading competition (!) is announced, the room fills with spectators who cheer and taunt, one plays the violin, and the movie gets absorbing and funny again. But just as the scene is cresting, another plot device breaks up the fun, the room empties, and the energy is sapped. The downer doesn’t have the impact that it should because it’s an artificial device crashing into a naturalistic scene. Throughout the film, there’s an uneasy relationship between Demme’s life-giving direction and the script’s insistence that the principals have to keep revisiting the same conflicts.

I can’t help but wonder what Rachel Getting Married would be like if Demme’s background action had taken over and the film had become a sequence of semi-improvised ensemble scenes, with Kym and Rachel’s conflict playing only an incidental part. The sisters would float in and out of the action, their story just a strain of the richer goings-on about the house. It’s clear that Demme could make a masterpiece composed of nothing but background characters and reaction shotsa device he elevates to exciting heights here, another way the movie livens up when studying the periphery.

While the strong emotional impact of Rachel would shift or disappear if Demme did away with the script altogether, it would liberate this movie. This is a film that’s got scratch marks on its walls from a less familiar beast trying to break out of it. The structure of Demme’s film allows it to be as emotionally involving as you let it be, but Rachel Getting Married feels like a very good movie holding an even better movie hostage.