Marriage and the Family

February 21, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

(Last movie post before the Oscars on Sunday night).

In rituals, a group presents an idealized version of itself. Consequently, movies about weddings often contrast this ideal version with the less-than-ideal reality of the family. Thomas Vinterberg’s Celebration (Denmark) is a particularly grim example. Rachel Getting Married does something similar in upscale Connecticut (it was shot in Fairfield). But Rachel Getting Married hardly seems like an American movie. It’s not just that nobody blows up a helicopter. There’s not much that we would call plot. Nobody’s trying to accomplish something or overcome some internal or external obstacle or solve some problem or find the right lover. There’s nobody to root for.

 Instead, Rachel Getting Married unfolds the relationships within a family – mostly two sisters and a father. Rachel is the good girl, sensible and stable. Kym (Anne Hathaway, nominated for an Oscar) is beautiful, narcissistic, destructive, and self-destructive. Kym gets furloughed from rehab to go to Rachel’s wedding. The family revisit old and current conflicts and emotions, especially those surrounding the death of their baby brother Ethan ten or so years earlier. (Kym, age 16 and high on Percocet, driving Ethan home, lost control of the car, drove into a lake, and Ethan drowned.) Rachel gets married (in a much too long wedding scene), and Kym goes back to rehab. That’s it, more or less – two sisters, a past, a wedding, and not much plot.

I kept worrying that the film would have Kym try to seduce Rachel’s fiancĂ©, but mercifully it stayed away from such Hollywood cliches. In fact, the traditional plot elements, such as they are, weaken the film. For example, the movie flirts with the theme of the 800-pound family secret – the one that everyone spends a lot of energy pretending not to see until it becomes unavoidable. (A previous post on this theme is here.) Have they not talked about the death of Ethan many times before? It flirts also with the pop-psych idea that if the characters can just discover or admit what really happened on that fateful day, all will be resolved. In this case, it turns out that it’s all Mom’s fault. But the film would be better if it weren’t so heavy-handed about this and just let Mom’s character – cold, selfish – unfold without making it the Answer. 

Still, this is a movie well worth seeing.

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