The Anniversary Party
review by Gianni Truzzi, 8 June 2001

In a lengthy, improvised sequence, Joe and Sally's Hollywood friends each give a toast to the six years of their on-again, off-again marriage that they have all gathered to celebrate. The celebrity pair may have spent more time apart than together, reunited only five months ago after a one-year separation. They're trying to have a baby. They curl together on the floor, still basking in the glow of recovered romance, while their guests pay tribute. Their business managers, Jerry and Judy Adams, flail about for something to say, masking their uncertainty that the marriage they're toasting will last. "Six years," Judy (Parker Posey) says, then giggles, "six minutes, six hours," before Jerry (John Benjamin Hickey) stops her with "six eons!" What does it matter? This couple is doomed, and deservedly so.

Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh co-wrote, co-directed and co-star in what purports to be an exploration of love, marriage and modern relationships. Leigh is Sally Nash, a highly regarded actress -- Hollywood-speak for someone who has never won an Academy Award. Cumming is Joe Therrian, a bisexual, enfant terrible novelist who is about to direct the film of his own book.  Over the course of an evening's party, the warts of their relationship are uncovered, amid the counterpoint of their friends' relationship issues, helped along by doses of Ecstasy.

The parade of name acting talent -- drawn from Leigh and Cummings' circle of friends -- delivers performances that strut and occasionally stun. Kevin Kline, as Cal Gold, the leading man starring opposite Sally in her latest film, doesn't overwhelm for once. Gwyneth Paltrow plays Skye Anderson, the hot star property that has agreed to play the lead in Joe's picture (a major coup for him), as a character that all assume was based on Sally. She is sweet and radiant, always leaving you uncertain of how innocent she really is.

But this is a character actor's film, and the lesser-known names give the best performances in their interplay of neuroses. Phoebe Cates tears things up as Cal's centered wife Sophie, a former actress who retired to raise their children ("Get the epidural!" she advises Sally). Jane Adams, as Clair, the wife of Sally's director Mac Forsyth (Magnolia's John C. Reilly) is rollicking as the hovering new mother, monitoring her pager for the sitter's call and avoiding Sophie's ill-judgment that she's not breast-feeding. Hickey, as Sally's business manager, is wonderfully aggressive and single-minded; he can't play a simple game of charades without belligerence.

The outsiders in this tightly knit crew are the Roses, Ryan (Denis O'Hare) and Monica (Mina Badie), who have been invited solely to keep them from suing Joe and Sally over their dog's barking. One feels a little sorry for O'Hare, since they have given him little to do except be a curmudgeon, but, as Monica, Badie is wonderfully complex. The surprise is how eager she is to smooth things over, starstruck by her famous neighbors. Her request for Joe to sign her dog-eared copy of his book, even after he has cruelly admitted to her that she isn't really wanted there, is heartbreaking.

Surprisingly, one of the most endearing to watch is the one person (other than Kline's kids) who isn't an actor. Michael Panes, as Sally's best friend Levi, plays a violinist who revels in his physical similarity to Peter Sellers. He is grounded and funny, and his success with Skye Anderson will offer plain men everywhere some hope.

Despite so much fine work by such talented people, it fails to satisfy as a film about modern marriage. We can't relate to these people. They're self-absorbed and shallow. They're spoiled by having others clean up after them, and unwilling to engage in the hard give-and-take of a relationship. We feel no pity for them, no connection to our own, more commonplace lives. They're icky, and deserve all the grief they make for themselves.

In its ensemble hodgepodge, improvisations, character-based meandering of plotline and casual, thrown-together style, The Anniversary Party aspires to mimic the work of Robert Altman, a director that has been important in Leigh's acting career. The Los Angeles setting certainly reminds us of Short Cuts, in which Leigh played a distracted housewife moonlighting as a phone sex worker. (She was also in Kansas City, and Altman produced Mrs. Parker.) But Cumming and Leigh have mistakenly mimicked Altman's deceptive appearance of sloppiness by ignoring structure altogether. Story elements that you think will have significance, such as Sally's purchase of Joe's grandfather's London house as a surprise present, evaporate. Where do they go?

The press notes make much of the 19-day shoot on digital video, and how much more accessible it has become to make movies. This is a mistake. If anything, this film is an argument that filmmaking should remain difficult, with enough technical obstacles to keep actors away from goofing around with a dangerous instrument like a camera. Late in the evening, Mac asks Joe, "Do you even like movies?" "No," the newly made director responds sheepishly, "not really." This is meant to be Cumming and Leigh's joke on Hollywood, a slap at poseurs who pursue directing only for the perceived glamour and power. But it's a criticism that could be leveled at themselves. They don't seem to be very interested in film either, or even in story.

They are interested in acting, of course, and they give themselves plenty of opportunities for scenery chewing, from Sophie's wonderful dishing of Joe's infantile habits, to Sally's late-night confessions to Joe. But the drama flounders in the absence of any real denouement. The final events seem contrived and desperate, chosen for their weepiness rather than trying to help this film add up to anything.

If The Anniversary Party reminds us of any of Altman's great works, it's probably one that Cumming and Leigh would find the least flattering. Taking on co-writing, co-starring and co-directing seems like their version of studio head Griffin Mills' musing, in The Player, about how attractive it would be to do without all those creative people that get in his way. Everyone thinks his or her own contribution is the most essential. Cumming and Leigh desperately need those other people to put some flesh on their film.

Written and
Directed by:

Alan Cumming
Jennifer Jason Leigh

Starring:
Alan Cumming
Jennifer Jason Leigh
Steven Freedman
Clara Demedrano
John Benjamin Hickey
Parker Posey
Phoebe Cates
Kevin Kline
Denis O'Hare
Mina Badie
Jane Adams
John C. Reilly
Jennifer Beals
Blair Tefkin
Molly Bryant
Michael G. Carroll
Jessica Queller

Rated:
PG-13 - Restricted
Under 17 requires
accompanying parent or adult
guardian.

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