A Buddhist Review of Rachel Getting Married

June 24th, 2009

Stories about addiction often interest me as a Buddhist, because addiction is a perfect example of  the kind of suffering Buddha taught about.  We suffer because we can’t control our craving, our thirst.  This applies to all of us; we all have things we’re addicted to.  Our dissatisfaction with life comes from our own habits and mental formations, and this realization is especially pronounced in those people whose addictions have driven them to a breaking point.

The main character in Rachel Getting Married is Kym, and she has passed this breaking point a long time ago.  At the beginning of the movie, she takes a temporary leave from an addiction treatment facility to attend the wedding of her sister, Rachel.  Kym’s leaving rehab, and Rachel’s getting married, and both are big events for the family that require a level of involvement and attention.

I think we all feel a bit of attention deficit from families.  Our families are where we first learn what it means to be a person, and however much we grow up, we still look to them for evidence that we are important, that someone’s looking at us as people.  But a fair share doesn’t seem like enough, or especially if you have siblings, it feels like someone else is always getting more than a fair share.  Kym and Rachel both feel this way at times, like they rightfully deserve a little more attention than they’re getting.

Of course there are two basic strategies that siblings can use to get attention: being a success and being a fuck-up.  Whichever strategy you’re using, you’re bound to feel a little resentful of a sibling who’s using the other strategy.  If you’re successful, you probably feel like it’s unfair that someone else gets attention whenever they mess up.  At one point in the movie, Rachel accuses her father of caring more about Kym’s melodrama–“If anyone wants to get your attention, they just have to ask you about Kym.”  The flip side of this resentment is that the fuck-up feels like the successful sibling is being rewarded beyond their success.  You’re getting married, you have a career, you have a healthy life, and on top of all that, you want everyone to devote a whole weekend to telling you how happy they are for you.

Not to give away any major plot points, but there’s a significant conversation in Rachel Getting Married that is turned around midstream, and Kym’s resentment of this is obvious: it’s as if she’s saying, “You can’t interrupt a conversation about my problems and turn it into a conversation about yet another way your life is going right.”

It’s an interesting, nuanced movie, in part because the whole family is somewhat sympathetic.  Even though Kym has no clue how to do what’s right, she wants to.  Even when in the midst of a crowd of wedding guests, Kym is obviously seeing her own story.  There’s a very long scene of the rehearsal dinner, where guest after guest makes a toast to the happy couple.  Through all the toasts, Kym looks like she’s trying to be part of the easy rapport that Rachel and her fiance Sidney have with a whole cast of friends and relatives.  When she tries to make her own toast, it results in deep discomfort; the guests who had been laughing amiably at all the other toasts seem at a loss from her first line: “Hello, I’m Shiva the destroyer, and I am your harbinger of doom for the evening.”

Her toast, and the other toasts, are contrasted by two scenes at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting.  At the meeting, Kym’s speech fits in.  She knows that she can say what she wants and people will understand.  She wishes she could find that in the rest of her life–and if there’s any more universal longing than that, I don’t know what it is.

I was interested, after seeing the movie, to look at other reviews, and I was surprised to see a lot of negative reviews from discussion boards, but perhaps what surprised me most was a positive review which focused entirely on the diversity of the wedding party.  The reviewer expressed surprise and happiness that a successful movie portrayed an interracial wedding.  It seemed strange to me that the review would make a big deal out of the fact that the movie treats interracial relationships as no big deal.

The flip-side to this is that in the smiling parade of diverse wedding guests, we focus on the drama of the two sisters and their parents, and some people wondered if the African-American family was portrayed as magically cheerful.  But I think it points to a truth about families: on the outside, families often look a lot happier than they are.  And sometimes we need a little reminder of this–if we’re harboring the illusion that other families have the Happiness Handbook that we somehow missed out on.  There could be a companion movie to this, Sidney Getting Married, where we see the hidden drama in Sidney’s family.

There’s another character who is having a homecoming: Sidney’s cousin, who is called Specialist Gonzales.  He is mentioned in some of the toasts as a special guest on leave from the service.  He is shown in a formal uniform, always holding a camera.  His character is a kind of doppelganger to Kym’s; both are home only temporarily, and while they’re central to the film, it’s not really about them.  It’s about the whole family, and when we put the camera down, we see that we’re completely linked to every one of them.

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