A scene from 'The Anniversary Party'
Courtesy Photo
*** stars 115 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, June 22, 2001
Directed by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Alan Cumming

Starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Alan Cumming, Jane Adams, Jennifer Beals, Phoebe Cates, Kevin Kline, Gwyneth Paltrow, Parker Posey, John C. Reilly, John Benhamin Hickey, Michael Panes, Mina Badie, Denis O'Hare


On video this film may feel like spying on your neighbors. But it should survive the transition nicely.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 01.15.2002


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Just reconciled show biz couple celebrate their shaky union in candid, compelling, character-driven low-budget ensemble piece

By Rob Blackwelder

Making a Hollywood story with a decidedly un-Hollywood flair, co-writers, co-directors and co-stars Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming take a casual, almost guerilla approach to their collaborative conception called "The Anniversary Party."

It's a shoestring production shot cinema vérité style in which these two gifted journeyman actors play a shaky show biz couple throwing themselves a sixth anniversary bash even though they've just recently and tentatively reconciled after a big infidelity blow-up.

Their guests -- movie stars, directors, industry types and hangers-on -- seem vaguely uncomfortable congratulating Sally and Joe Therrian (Leigh and Cumming) on their longevity under the circumstances. But in a town where fakery is the norm, it's easy for everyone to put on a happy face -- even the non-industry next-door neighbors (Denis O'Hare and Mina Badie) who have been invited only in an attempt to ease tensions over a barking dog dispute that's threatening to turn legal.

Leigh and Cumming aren't making an insider satire here, although the film certainly has a sense of humor about its trappings. This is more an attempt to dig underneath the dark sunglasses and designer suits to show an unexpected humanity, insecurity and vulnerability.

The characters are refreshingly normal people with sometimes tender, sometimes bombastic egos and workaday quirks and anxieties. The cast of highly recognizable talents give such honest, humble performances that you've hardly had the time to recognize their faces before you're buying into their roles 100 percent.

It probably helps that many of these characters are loosely based on the actors themselves, like Kevin Kline and his semi-retired wife Phoebe Cates, who play Cal and Sophia Gold, an Academy Award-winning actor and his semi-retired actress wife. John C. Reilly ("The Perfect Storm," "Magnolia," "Boogie Nights") gives one of his finest performances yet as a frustrated director whose current project starring Sally and Cal is falling apart. Jane Adams ("Happiness") plays his wife, who is obsessively and vocally paranoid about leaving their new baby with a sitter in order to attend the party.

Other guests are played by Parker Posey, John Benjamin Hickey, Jennifer Beals, Michael Panes and Gwenyth Paltrow, who turns up as Skye Davidson, a rising starlet about to star in the first film directed by Joe -- a novelist by trade. Her invitation opens up an old wound for Sally, who is angry with Joe for basing the character on her, then giving the role to a much younger actress.

Such tensions slowly begin to rattle the party, which takes a turn toward the precarious and promiscuous when Joe and Sally open Skye's anniversary gift -- hits of Ecstasy for everyone.

The film takes a turn for the precarious at this point as well because it starts to feel as if Leigh and Cumming, as its writers, hit a creative wall and getting people high became an easy solution. The story begins to languish about 10 minutes before this point as the directors linger on a variety of guests' toasts to Sally and Joe, which should have been handled as a montage since we haven't known these people long enough to care for hearing speech after speech.

But it isn't long before Leigh and Cumming find their way back to the comedy, conflict and emotional sincerity that drive their plot, leading to scenes in which the two of them really get to shine as they reveal how unstable Sally and Joe's relationship really is.

"The Anniversary Party" has the air of a pet project, but it's not an ego vehicle for its writer-directors, who met while starring together on stage in "Cabaret." It feels more like the product of two fertile minds that have spent years working with some of the most creative directors of our time. Between them they've acted for Robert Altman, the Coen Brothers, David Cronenberg, Agnieszka Holland, Stanley Kubrick, Julie Taymor and Sam Mendes to name a few.

Clearly influenced by Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson ("Magnolia," "Boogie Nights"), Cumming and Leigh also took stylistic cues (such as shooting hand-held -- but smoothly -- on digital video instead of film) from her recent experience on "The King Is Alive," one of a series of Danish films made under the minimalist doctrine called Dogme95.

The result is a candid and compelling, character-driven ensemble piece with the kind of fly-on-the-wall appeal that makes it easy to forgive its occasional flaws and self-indulgences.


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