The Anniversary Party
The Anniversary Party

USA, 2001. Rated R. 115 minutes.

Cast: Alan Cumming, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kevin Kline, Gwyneth Paltrow, Parker Posey, John C. Reilly, Jennifer Beals, Phoebe Cates, Jane Adams, John Benjamin Hickey, Denis O'Hare, Mina Badie, Michael Panes
Writers: Alan Cumming & Jennifer Jason Leigh
Music: Michael Penn
Cinematographer: John Bailey
Producers: Alan Cumming, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Joanne Sellar
Directors: Alan Cumming & Jennifer Jason Leigh


Grade: B+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

What an odd pair Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh make. Leigh (Rush, Georgia), a bad-girl actor with a fading film career, and Cumming (Titus, Spy Kids), a new-on-the-scene mischievous imp oddly reminiscent of Pee-Wee Herman, are not merely a movie duo, but creative collaborators on The Anniversary Party, a film shot entirely on digital video. Cumming and Leigh co-wrote, co-produced, and co-directed this satirical and laugh-out-loud funny slice-of-life drama about a troubled Hollywood couple who invite a circle of troubled Hollywood friends to a party for their sixth wedding anniversary.

Leigh's character, Sally Therrian, is, like Leigh, an acclaimed actor with a fading career, and Cumming's character, Joe Therrian, is, like Cumming, a rising star--a well-established writer about to make his directorial debut, shooting a film based on his latest novel, which everyone assumes is autobiographical and largely about Sally. Like their characters, Leigh and Cumming have invited a circle of Hollywood friends, several of whom have worked with Leigh or Cumming before, to participate in their project.

The Anniversary Party doesn't provide a single detail of exposition, though--this review has already told you more than the movie explains. Cumming and Leigh simply raise the curtain the morning of Sally and Joe's sixth anniversary and lower it exactly twenty-four hours later. We join lives and events already in progress, with not a shred of artificial I'm-saying-this-for-the-benefit-of-the-audience dialogue. The audience is required to piece together the facts, the plot, and the conflicts on its own, which turns out to be part of the fun. As the puzzle pieces drop into place, we learn that Joe had left Sally for a time, but that they reunited five months before this anniversary and that they are trying to have a child.

The roster of invitees to Sally and Joe's party include their anal-retentive and absurdly competitive accountant Jerry Adams (John Benjamin Hickey); Jerry's wife, Judy (Parker Posey); Sally's best friend, retired actor Sophia Gold (Phoebe Cates); Sophie's big-shot actor husband and Sally's current co-star, Cal (Kevin Kline, who is also Cates' husband in real life); Sally's unhappy director, Mac Forsythe (John C. Reilly); his hilariously hyper-tense wife, Claire (Jane Adams), and an eccentric violinist, Levi Panes (Michael Panes, a actual violinist in his film debut).

In addition, there are four wild-card invitees whose presence introduce conflict and bring submerged emotions to the fore. Alan CummingThey include two women of whom Sally is extremely jealous: starlet Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow), Joe's choice to play the role that everyone assumes is based on and meant for Sally, and controlling Gina Taylor (Jennifer Beals), Joe's best friend and confidant. In an effort to "suck up," Sally and Joe have also invited their next neighbors, Ryan and Monica Rose (Denis O'Hare and Mina Badie), who have been threatening to sue over the Therrians' incessantly barking dog. The neighbors are completely out of their element at the party and can't let go of the issue of the dog.

As the evening wears on, a mind-altering substance is introduced by one of the guests. The drug is, of course, a device to bring the conflicts to a head, but Cumming and Leigh are careful with it. People don't do drugs and suddenly fall to pieces. The characters remain true to who they are, which enhances the believability of the artifice, and the story retains the natural ebb and flow of a real party and, by extension, of real life. As in real life, there are no clear answers at the end of The Anniversary Party. However, the fate of Sally and Joe's dog, who is a metaphor for their relationship, offers a hint of what lies in their future.

Playing fickle Joe and angry Sally isn't a stretch for either Cumming or Leigh. They're best known for playing characters like these. In fact, as the casting choices suggest, all the actors in the outstanding ensemble play to type, not against it. While this provides less opportunity for us to marvel at their talent (though marvel we should), it's a wise strategy, because The Anniversary Party's uncontrived slice-of-the-lives-of-the-rich-and-famous ambiance depends on the actors being relaxed and unaffected. Relaxed and unaffected they are; even Leigh drops her mannerisms.

Although Cumming and Leigh's script partly shows us the "real-life" Hollywood we rarely see, and partly satirizes it, the camera's perspective remains resolutely nonjudgmental and voyeuristic. There are no sweeping indictments, superimposed commentary, ethics lectures, or moral messages. The closest thing The Anniversary Party comes to making an obvious generalization is the fact that everyone is comically self-absorbed. Beyond that, they are all sharply and individually realized characters, which makes it easy to keep track of the large cast and helps keep us engaged. Yes, the film is in part about rich people with rich-people problems, but these problems are not dissimilar from the problems of any other people.

How do people with perfect lives find ways to live them so imperfectly, you might wonder? The Anniversary Party shows us, making us laugh and understand at the same time. While it would perhaps be too much to ask audiences to sympathize with these characters, Cummings and Leigh don't ask for sympathy. They merely ask for empathy, and they make it unexpectedly easy--and pleasant--for us to give it.

Review © June 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 Fine Line Features. All Rights Reserved.

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