Hathaway finally leads in Demme’s weak ‘Rachel’

It seems like Anne Hathaway has been teetering on the edge of superstardom for ages, but for one reason or another her career has remained just inches away from the A-list. It doesn’t help that the actress — a luminous beauty, with more than a little talent lurking behind her porcelain features — carries the dubious mantle of a teeny-bopper idol, courtesy of her early work in the “Princess Diaries” franchise (2001).

Eager to dispel the lingering aroma of her Disney days, Hathaway has recently thrown herself into more serious pursuits, playing the neglected wife of Jake Gyllenhaal’s gay cowboy in “Brokeback Mountain” (2005). It was a decent performance, but Hathaway passed unnoticed amidst the film’s titanic clash of masculine egos. Hathaway was similarly overlooked in “Get Smart” (2008), where she had the misfortune of playing straight woman to Steve Carell’s bumbling clown.

“The Devil Wears Prada” (2006) offered Hathaway her first potential breakthrough role, but again she was overshadowed, this time by the raging elemental force of Meryl Streep in a power suit.

In “Rachel Getting Married,” Hathaway cedes her ground to nobody. As Kym, a recovering drug addict who arrives home from rehab to wreak havoc on the eve of her sister’s wedding, the actress delivers a raw, vivid portrayal that may be her most mature effort to date.

The film itself is a bit of a disappointment, but Hathaway soars above the material, elevating a mawkish dramatic exercise into an incendiary star turn. Along the way, she effectively incinerates what remains of her Disney Princess image. “Rachel Getting Married” is forgettable, but Anne Hathaway’s performance is not.

Is there such a thing as an uneventful wedding ceremony? Not according to Hollywood. Marriages are one of those familiar social rituals that always seem to go horribly wrong in the movies, and “Rachel Getting Married” is no exception.

This time around, the hapless bride-to-be is a high-strung graduate student named Rachel (Rosemarie Dewitt), who is betrothed to a handsome musician named Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe). This fragile portrait of nuptial bliss is abruptly shattered by the arrival of Rachel’s sister Kym, who has been excused from her rehabilitation center for the weekend to come join in the festivities.

Like a bull in a marital china shop, Kym storms into the peaceful proceedings and begins to wreak havoc. Upon finding that she has been ousted as maid of honor, she unleashes a volcanic temper tantrum until her position is restored.

During the wedding preparations, she sneaks off to have vigorous sex with the Best Man (Mather Zickel). Her ceremonial wedding toast devolves into a rambling account of her substance abuse history. Despite the frantic conciliatory efforts of her father (Bill Irwin), Rachel lashes back at Kym’s sociopathic behavior, and before long the family’s strained domestic tranquility devolves into chaos.

The objective here is one of exaggerated familiarity — as audience members, we are expected to sigh with recognition at the travails of the dysfunctional household.

The effect, however, is more in line with that of a horror movie: When will disaster strike, and will anyone survive the aftermath? Hathaway’s performance is the living embodiment of emotional toxicity, but the film treats her like a ticking time bomb, and after a while the suspense of her imminent meltdown begins to wear thin.

When catastrophe finally arrives (in the form of a surprise visitor from Kym’s past), the twist feels unmistakably contrived, and the ensuing histrionics spin out of control into dramatic irrelevance.

It didn’t have to be this way. “Rachel Getting Married” was directed by the great Jonathan Demme, whose early work (ever seen “Silence of the Lambs”(1991)?) displayed an admirable disdain for this sort of sentimental nonsense.

It doesn’t help that Demme has abandoned the methodical formalism of his past films for the faux-artsy aesthetic of the Sundance Channel. “Rachel” was shot with natural lighting and a handheld camera, as if to suggest that what we are seeing is not some fancy Hollywood movie but a homemade record of an actual event.

A shaky camera can be a powerful device for peering into the human soul (just ask John Cassavetes, whose similarly themed “A Woman Under the Influence” (1974) puts this movie to shame), but the effect here is too deliberate, a calculated play for presentational realism.

Demme can’t figure out how to end his movie, so instead of dramatic closure, “Rachel Getting Married” offers a clumsy facsimile: lots of screaming and crying, followed by inexplicable reconciliation and a festive after-party.

There are a few nice performance numbers toward the end, but don’t be fooled — this limp denouement is the product of lazy screenwriting and an overpaid music department. Like most of the movie, the closing revelry leaves you with a sense that “Rachel Getting Married” was more fun to make than to watch.

To his credit, Demme remains a sterling director of actors, and he draws a staggering portrayal from Anne Hathaway, which contains more dramatic authenticity than the rest of the film put together. This is a side of Hathaway that we’ve never seen before — pale and edgy, her brunette locks sawed off into jagged spikes, she transforms into a fiery anti-beauty with an stare that could melt steel.

It’s an electric performance, but Hathaway is careful to center herself; she fashions Kym into a tragic figure whose explosive outbursts are anchored by moments of wounded emotional fragility.

What Hathaway, or any actress for that matter, couldn’t do is make the rest of the movie ring true. “Rachel Getting Married” isn’t terrible, but it leaves too many seams exposed — everything in the film feels scripted and forced, even as the slapdash camerawork encourages us to think otherwise. My advice to Jonathan Demme is this: Find a better screenplay, re-hire Anne Hathaway and think about investing in a Stedicam.

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