MOVIE REVIEW- Heaven or hell: <i>Rachel </i>is sometimes better, sometimes worse

a still from this week's filmWith apologies to newlyweds, Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married is much like marriage itself: Sometimes it's heaven, and sometimes it's hell.

This is the kind of movie that gets rave reviews from certain critics but leaves many viewers suspicious of independent films in general until the next Juno or Little Miss Sunshine comes along. In many ways, it seems true to life, but one of those ways is that, like life, it has long, boring stretches in which nothing happens.

Shot like one of those Danish Dogme 95 films with a lot of shaky handheld camerawork, it's a drama about a wedding weekend at the home of a dysfunctional liberal family in Connecticut.

Despite trying to show life as it is, director Jonathan Demme and writer Jenny Lumet (Sidney's daughter) are moved by optimism to show life as it should be, with racial differences that would be a ticking time bomb in most movies a total nonissue here.

Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) is a white woman marrying Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), a black man. Her father, Paul (Bill Irwin), is already married to (or living with– it's not clear) a black woman, Carol (Anna Deavere Smith). If anyone in their families has a problem with it, there's no indication of it in this color-blind Eden.

Since that's not going to be a source of drama, there's Rachel's sister, Kym (Anne Hathaway). She leaves rehab for the wedding. Her latest stint has kept her clean and sober for nine months, but her problems go back a decade. The 12-Step program has her trying to make amends, and she has plenty to make, including something unpardonable she did when she was 16 and high.

Kym is one of those people who suck all the oxygen out of a room. As Rachel puts it, "Since everything has always revolved around her disease, she assumes everything will revolve around her recovery." Even on the weekend of Rachel's wedding, Kym tries to make everything about herself, starting with stealing the maid of honor spot from Rachel's best friend.

Paul tries to keep an eye on Kym, but he's no good at being subtle about it. She reacts with paranoia when she gets too much attention and with jealousy when she gets too little.

Also coming around for the wedding is the girls' remarried mother, Abby (Debra Winger, making a welcome comeback in a role that should be bigger). She deals with her awkward position by being involved as little as possible.

"Awkward" is the word for Rachel Getting Married. It's nearly two hours of expertly-portrayed awkwardness, with Kym stomping through the family in boots while everyone tiptoes around her.

While giving the viewer the uncomfortable feeling of eavesdropping is good filmmaking, it extends beyond that to feeling like a guest at a party where you don't know anyone. The succession of speeches at the endless rehearsal dinner does less to familiarize you with the characters than to make you aware of how unfamiliar with them you are.

Worse yet is the wedding itself, which goes off without a hitch. That would be great in real life; but, in a movie, it makes for a long, what should be climactic, stretch with no drama. That includes the reception, a showcase for Demme's eclectic musical taste that samples sounds–and not always the most accessible sounds– from at least five continents. Guests include Robyn Hitchcock, Sister Carol and Tamyra Gray (still my favorite Idol contestant). Adding to the musical Babel are string players who spend the whole weekend at the house tuning up– or at least that's what it sounds like.

Hathaway gives a terrific performance, really getting into Kym's skin; but she doesn't totally get under ours, perhaps because of a lingering fondness viewers had for her in previous roles. This makes her easier to watch but perhaps not as grating as she should be. Hell, it must have been hard for Demme to find an actress her age who wasn't actually in rehab.

DeWitt is excellent as the conflicted Rachel, who loves her sister against all odds but spends a lot of time understandably ticked off at her. Someone working toward a Ph.D in psychology, as Rachel is, might have a better handle on the situation. Like all families, they repeatedly implode but come together again because that's what families do.

Some people will like Rachel Getting Married as much as some critics have, but you should be aware of what you're getting into– and there's no such thing as a "trial marriage" when you buy a movie ticket.