(CNN) -- Remember when actresses really lit up the screen? Anne Hathaway rekindles memories of Bette Davis and "Klute"-era Jane Fonda in Jonathan Demme's new film: barely a scene goes by without her pulling on a cigarette.
When Davis took a drag it was a mark of sophistication. By Fonda's time it was beginning to take on neurotic undertones, but was still a talisman of intelligence and seriousness.
Today -- having virtually disappeared from the movies -- the cigarette is a sign of stunted growth, a crutch that Kym, Hathaway's character in "Rachel Getting Married," can't put aside. It's also a substitute for the harder stuff she really craves.
She's straight out of rehab, heading home for her sister's wedding. Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) is grateful to have her there ... kinda. Kym has a way of sucking the oxygen -- along with the nicotine -- right out of the room. Their dad (Bill Irwin) fusses over her like he's afraid she'll shoot up in front of the priest. The maid of honor hates her guts -- even before Kym insists she should have had the job by birthright.
Take it from me, we're a long way from "27 Dresses."
Demme and cinematographer Declan Quinn shot "Rachel" on the fly, with a handheld camera and jump cuts. It feels more like reality TV or a cop show than a romantic comedy. I'm guessing that the specific inspiration was the Danish film "The Celebration," the most effective of the so-called "Dogme 95" movies, which was also about a large family gathering that threatened to go nuclear.
In any case, for 45 minutes "Rachel" feels like a new lease on life for the director who gave us "The Silence of the Lambs," "Something Wild" and "Philadelphia." More recently Demme has seemed out of touch with audience taste and industry demands (remember "The Truth About Charlie"?), and he's concentrated on documentaries and concert films. Maybe that's why "Rachel" sometimes feels like watching someone else's home movies -- in good ways and bad. (Warning: Lots of wedding speeches ahead.)
For a while, the script by Jenny Lumet (Sidney's daughter) seems of a piece with Demme's approach. Brief, glancing scenes indicate tensions and trouble ahead, but it's glossed over in the turmoil of the wedding preparations. A romantic subplot seems to be in the offing when Kym recognizes the best man from Alcoholics Anonymous. They have sex, but the scene is every bit as perfunctory as their emotional connection.
And in a resolutely unshowy comeback, Debra Winger practically backs into the movie as the sisters' mom, a stranger in another woman's household (both parents have remarried), reluctant to offer anything more holding than a smile.
Kym is at the opposite pole. She complains about her dad's attention, but she's desperate for it too. She's a nightmare wedding guest, a time bomb waiting for the moment of maximum impact. Hathaway's terrific performance is a flurry of darting jabs and imagined sleights. She's hypersensitive and utterly insensitive at the same time, her obvious smarts crushed under years of smarting.
So what's her problem anyhow? There's the rub -- and the point where this fresh, lively picture falls in on itself. Without going into particulars, Kym is living with years of guilt. It spills out of her at the rehearsal dinner and washes over the room like toxic shock -- and it doesn't stop there. The whole movie is contaminated with the psychological fallout, the festering grievances, recriminations and jealousies. What a swell party this is!
It doesn't help (or maybe it does) that the family is Well-heeled Connecticut with Artsy Associations. The film's score is supplied by live performances from various guests, many of whom will be familiar to fans of previous Jonathan Demme soundtracks. They include Robyn Hitchcock, "Sister" Carol East and a posse of Brazilian drummers. The bridegroom is Tunde Adebimpe, from TV on the Radio. The only surprise is that Neil Young doesn't show up.
It's debatable whether all this music stalls "Rachel" in its tracks or serves as a welcome counterpoint to the finger-pointing. It's a bit of both, maybe. Nevertheless, it's disappointing that a movie so intent on immersing us in the moment should sink into such a swamp of back story and then -- in the sorry pop-psych tradition of "Ordinary People" -- lay the blame squarely on Mom. "Rachel Getting Married" could have done better than that.