The Anniversary Party
2001, R, 115 min. Directed by Alan Cumming, Jennifer Jason Leigh. Starring Cumming, Leigh, Phoebe Cates, Kevin Kline, Gwyneth Paltrow, Denis O'Hare, Mina Badie, Jane Adams, John C. Reilly, Parker Posey.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., June 22, 2001
Critics tend to get a little suspicious whenever entertainers try to break out of their niche to try something new. “But what I really want to do is [act/direct/write]” can be a cringe-inducing cliché, to be sure. And certainly the backstory of The Anniversary Party -- a couple of actors team up to write, direct, and appear in a film starring all of their fabulous Hollywood actor friends, who happen to be playing the parts of fabulous Hollywood actor friends -- sounds an awful lot like a “vanity project.” But, cloying as it reads on paper, The Anniversary Party works. Co-writers and directors Cumming and Leigh, who met while performing Cabaret on Broadway, play married couple Joe and Sally Therrian, recently reconciled after a yearlong separation. He's a novelist about to direct his first film, which is based on his novel, which is based on his relationship with Sally. She's a thirtysomething actress -- not quite washed up, maybe just slumping. He's riding a career high, she's down in the doldrums, and their marriage seems to be squarely set on the San Andreas Fault, poised to fissure again at any second. So why not throw an anniversary party, and invite all your friends -- like the litigious couple next door (Badie and O'Hare), itching to go to court over Sally and Joe's barking dog, or the hippie-dippy actress du jour, Skye Davidson (Paltrow), hired to star in Joe's new film in the role of Sally's doppelganger … the part Sally believes to rightfully be hers. The party starts out shaky and turns positively quaking by the time Skye produces a dozen hits of Ecstasy (gifts of “love” for the couple, she beams). Soon half the party has stripped down to their skivvies for a night swim, relationships are splintering faster than a wet, chewed toothpick, and the ugly truth is spilling from more than one set of loose lips. It could all be a little too self-conscious, or a little too self-congratulatory -- and, truth be told, some of The Anniversary Party's titillation factor rests on the awareness that these are actors playing actors, in roles written specifically for them that at times appear awfully close to home. But Leigh and Cumming overcome the built-in pitfalls of this kind of project by surrounding themselves with an exceedingly talented cast. To a one, the actors appear effortless in their characterizations, so much so that it's easy to overlook how exquisite their performances are. Cates in particular is a subdued stunner as Sally's earthy best friend, her beatific smile tempered by a laugh-out-loud frankness. The film falters somewhat in the third act, when too many issues logjam the film's earlier, easier pacing (you get the feeling the writers felt the obligation to construct some ready-made moments for actorly grandstanding). A confrontation between Sally and Joe comes off too theatrical, too contrived (although their vitriol succeeds in feeling uncomfortably familiar to anyone who's ever known the razor-edge, petty hysterics of a substance-influenced fight). In the end, the missteps can be forgotten. The Anniversary Party leaves you feeling as if you've spent the past few hours well, and in good company -- just as a party should.