By now, we've all seen enough swervy, bobbingcamera film fictions to have grown more or less immune to the technique. So when I tell you that Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married is a family drama shot in spontaneous long takes in the brash, jumpy handheld mode of a home video, you'd be right to say, ''What else is new?'' But Rachel Getting Married is something new indeed. It's not just the images (shot by Declan Quinn) that are off-balance and intimately charged. So is everything that happens to the Buchmans, a Connecticut family who live on a leafy estate, where they're about to marry their eldest daughter, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), to Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), who is some sort of music-biz hotshot. He is also African-American, a fact the film exquisitely ignores (though that doesn't mean it isn't central to the dramatic texture).
Rachel's sister, Kym (Anne Hathaway), has been an addict since she was in her teens. (Which drugs? All of them.) For the occasion, she is being let out of rehab for the weekend. The last actress you'd expect to see cast as a self-loathing, frayed-nerves drug casualty is a red-carpet blossom like Hathaway. Yet from the moment she shows up, her eyes peering with a junkie's paranoid radar from beneath her Louise Brooks-helmet-slashed-with-a-straight-razor hair, the actress wires you right into her rage and awareness. Kym is a walking disaster, but a disaster with feelers, and the effect she has upon her family is to electrify them with the dreaded truths she calls up. Hathaway is a revelation: She makes toxic narcissism mesmerizing, but she also gives Kym a desperate confessional ardor.
I don't think I've ever seen a wedding film that made me feel the way this one does, as if I wasn't just crashing the event but was part of the family. In a rehearsal dinner that sprawls on, the speeches are so revealing, stirring up so many awkward, touching crosscurrents, that it's as if you've known everyone in the room for years. That level of realism, as Robert Altman understood well, turns the most microscopic of interactions into drama, and that's the level Demme is working on here. It helps that the script, by Jenny Lumet (Sidney's daughter), is a fully woven web of love, jealousy, and enabling demons. After a while, Debra Winger shows up as the sisters' quasi-estranged mother, and she and Hathaway have a fight scene that's as raw as Ingmar Bergman and as operatic as Mildred Pierce.
This melting-pot wedding creates a frisson of its own; it's a vision of a new world. I do wish that Demme hadn't let the wedding music, by Robyn Hitchcock, Sister Carol East, and a few others, take over the last act. This much healing-by-'80s-hipster-taste is too much. But Rachel Getting Married is still a triumph Demme's finest work since The Silence of the Lambs, and a movie that tingles with life. A