The Anniversary Party
Reviewed in July 2001
Directors: Alan Cumming & Jennifer Jason Leigh. Cast: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Alan Cumming, Jane Adams, Jennifer Beals, Mina Badie, Phoebe Cates, John Benjamin Hickey, Kevin Kline, Matt McGrath, Denis O'Hare, Gwyneth Paltrow, Michael Panes, Parker Posey, John C. Reilly, Blair Tefkin, Matt Malloy. Screenplay: Alan Cumming & Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Photo © 2001 Fine Line Features
The Anniversary Party, co-written and co-directed by Hollywood chums Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, is the coolest game of screen peek-a-boo to come along in some time. Unlike a movie that tries to push its plot somewhere and fails, The Anniversary Party comes across as a tense, funny, and uncannily expert manipulation device that both catalyzes all sorts of mysteries about what will "happen" and neatly covers up (well, almost) the real nature of what's going on. I shouldn't mistake this film for anything so straightforward as a mystery, nor disguise the fact that there's plenty of overt enjoyment to be found unconcealed all over the surface of this peculiar, engaging movie. But what's best about The Anniversary Party is the stuff we aren't seeing, or the stuff we think we're seeing without ever being able to find proof.

Cumming and Leigh met as the co-stars of Broadway's recent hit revival of Cabaret; he had already won a Tony as the Emcee when Leigh joined the cast as Natasha Richardson's replacement in the role of Sally Bowles. These tidbits inform us a little about where The Anniversary Party came from, but they are also among the indispensable items of Hollywood gossip, biography, and rumor-mill flotsam that animate the whole project. Here Leigh appears as a very different Sally, but she's again playing second fiddle to Cumming's showier, stranger role as Joe, a precocious British novelist who has just received funding to direct a film adaptation of his own latest bestseller. Sally, an actress whose own distinguished career has been longer than Joe's, is handling the spotlight's shift onto Joe with relative grace, especially because her mind is set on more personal matters: on the day we meet the couple, they are celebrating the six-year anniversary of their marriage, but in fact have recently reunited after several months of separation following Joe's walking out. To commemorate their revitalized couplehood, but more importantly to perform it for their blamelessly inquisitive friends, Sally and Joe are throwing a bash to which most of these close acquaintances are invited.

The guest list has a dual character: beyond being friends of Joe and Sally, most of the invitees are also real-life friends of Leigh and Cumming, most of them in turn playing loose variations on their own public personae. A third Cabaret costar, John Benjamin Hickey, is Jerry Adams, the hardworking accountant who tries to keep the celebrity couple solvent; he is married to Parker Posey's Judy, a well-tailored , well-meaning friend who's just a little too shrill, even for the Hollywood set. Kevin Kline, an Oscar winning actor, drops by as Cal Gold, an Oscar winning actor, with a wife, Sophia, who, like her portrayer, Kline's wife Phoebe Cates, has largely retreated from her own acting career to raise the couple's children (or maybe just to avoid more Gremlins sequels). Jane Adams pops up as an even further out-there amplification of her neurotic roles in movies like Todd Solondz's Happiness; she is married to Magnolia's John C. Reilly, actually cast against type as a helpless director who thinks almost as little of his latest movie, which stars the Kline and Leigh characters, as he thinks of himself.

The rest of the principal cast is rounded out by two glamorous women and some relative lesser-knowns. In the former category, Jennifer Beals plays Gina, a chic photographer who is Joe's best friend, and has such a comfortable physical rapport with him that she was surely friendlier than friendly at some point in the past. Sally jealously wonders whether Joe is smitten with Gina even now, but she is even more enviously hostile toward Skye Davidson, the young Hollywood ingenue whom Joe has courted for a starring role in his picture that Sally, along with everyone else, assumed belonged to her. That Skye is played by Gwyneth Paltrow, the most famous face in the cast, adds titillating shivers to the way everyone at the party seems both awed by and contemptuous of her. Her only potential allies are folks with nothing to lose: Levi Panes (Michael Panes), a violinist who is Sally's nebbishy confidante, and Ryan and Monica Rose (Denis O'Hare and Mina Badie), neighbors of Sally and Joe who have been invited as an attempt to conciliate their long-standing dispute about noise levels and property boundaries. Monica is starstruck enough that the tactic might just work; Ryan, whose novels don't sell nearly as well as Joe's do, has already made up his mind to declare war.

Certainly, the unfamiliarity of O'Hare and Badie constantly remind us that their characters, too, are vulnerable unknowns in a sea of high-level creative power, though such a concentration of power has a way of combusting. The posters for The Anniversary Party announce with some portentousness, "It isn't a party till something gets broken," and of course much of our pleasure as viewers lies in predicting where the first flare-ups will originate. Cumming and Leigh's decision to shoot the film on digital video gives the film a grainy, documentary immediacy, just as it did to Dogme pictures like Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration, where a convocation of volatile characters was similarly fraught with the constant possibility of eruption.

The directions and moments in which The Anniversary Party eventually does erupt fall all over the spectrum from exciting to inevitable, from plot-shaping to perfunctory. Though seasoned cinematographer John Bailey composes some nice shots (in a way, of course, that they don't look composed), the piece is mostly Leigh and Cumming's gift to their actor friends, and some of the picture's limitations are common to a lot of thesp-heavy outings: simultaneously a whole lot and not much seem to happen, though the actors are all aces at making The Anniversary Party compelling viewing. Jennifer Beals and Phoebe Cates, unfortunately made into relics of the 1980s, make welcome returns to visibility. John Benjamin Hickey, appealing in a low-key role in Love! Valour! Compassion!, is effective here as a high-strung stuffed shirt who pretends to be relaxed but is ready to explode if he loses at charades. Matt McGrath scores with a monologue intended as a toast to Sally and Joe's marriage but barely concealing the range of sexual venturing Joe entertained in his absence.

The co-creators themselves do a good job holding all the flurrying action together with their performances, though Cumming's playing yields nothing as interesting as his own presence in the role: if anyone (Spike Jonze, maybe?) ever makes a film biography of the satyr-god Pan, Cumming's a shoo-in, but as the sexually ravenous, Hornbyish wit with a nasty temper, he bumps uncomfortably against the ceiling of his creative limitations. The one scene in the film that feels forced is the one Leigh and Cumming seem to have reserved as their own showcase, but I'd argue it's their very isolation for a prolonged moment more than any particular quality of script or acting, that sinks their exchange. For when The Anniversary Party works best, which is very often, it does so by playing coy with the audience's certitude about how celebrities, and in some ways these specific celebrities, really live. Is Gwyneth Paltrow really a blank vessel, and do Real Actors proudly avoid her in social settings? Probably not, though she's a very good sport (and a good comic actress) playing right into a snoopy public's less charitable murmurings about what's gotten her ahead.

Even more titillating: Is Kevin Kline really worried that he's getting too old, that his glory days are past? Is Phoebe Cates secretly furious that she gave it all up to his now-past prime? Does Jennifer Jason Leigh, cast here as an actress who flails when she isn't playing hookers and addicts, work, as they say, from a place of knowledge? Why is Michael Panes lending his own name to the character he plays? Meanwhile, on a larger scale, do Hollywood circles of friendship really operate like the one we're seeing, where not only is everyone whispering about everyone else, but all social interactions are staged as a performance? These figures can't even say "Thank you and best wishes" to their hosts without doing so in the form of a dance, a recital, a song. When the movie eventually turns histrionic, it may be because these characters know no other form of total sincerity than the high drama they all fetishize as an ultimate plane of truth.

There's a voyeuristic thrill in trying to press all these questions into a movie that won't answer or deny them, just continually allow them to be asked. In this way, the film offers an essay on our fascination with celebrity culture that's leagues and miles beyond the cruder gestures of a movie like America's Sweethearts. Their script sports such sterling dialogue that it often feels improvised. (Leigh's mother, Barbara Turner, who authored or co-authored Petulia, Georgia, and Pollock, served as a consultant.) There's enough going for this movie, and enough going on in it, that throwing in hard drugs as an extra narrative curveball seems unimaginative—plus some of the more florid eleventh-hour curlicues are just too over-the-top for even this spirited and pleasantly evasive picture. Still, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, who must surely have been accused of making a wholly self-serving career project of a private prank, have silenced any naysayers by generating an honest-to-God movie. What their friends are saying about it in response—about that we can only guess. Grade: B

National Board of Review: Special Mention for Excellence in Filmmaking

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