THE ANNIVERSARY PARTY

R
Reviews

These days, actors are embracing the cost-cutting and timesaving ease of digital video as a means to jump into the director's chair. Actors like Ethan Hawke, Griffin Dunne, Julie Delpy, Campbell Scott and Jean Marc-Barr have recently wielded digital cameras to bring their personal projects to life. Now joining the list of actors-turned-digital filmmakers are Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, who together wrote, directed, produced and star in The Anniversary Party. Shot in a mere 19 days, this tale about the difficulties of relationships plays out like an amusing Hollywood home movie, featuring a compelling ensemble cast of the filmmakers'friends and former working partners.

Sally Therrian (Leigh), an American actress, and her husband Joe (Cumming), a British novelist and rising film director, throw a party to celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary, an occasion which marks their decision to get back together after a yearlong separation and to begin a family. Uncharacteristic of the typically private couple, the Therrians invite a group of their closest friends and even a few enemies to share in this personal milestone. In attendance are Joe and Sally's money-hungry business managers Jerry (John Benjamin Hickey) and Judy Adams (Parker Posey), as well as Sally's current film co-star Cal Gold (Kevin Kline) and his wife, retired actress Sophia (Phoebe Cates). Also making an appearance is neurotic actress Clair (Jane Adams) and her husband Mac Forsyth (John C. Reilly), the director of Sally's current feature, which he believes is suffering from Sally's unconvincing performance. In addition, Joe's old flame, photographer Gina Taylor (Jennifer Beals) shows up, as does Sally's good friend, musician Levi Panes (Michael Panes). The Therrians also invite their hostile neighbors, Ryan (Denis O'Hare) and Monica Rose (Mina Badie), hoping to reconcile an impending lawsuit over Joe and Sally's barking dog. Generating the most tension is the arrival of the star of Joe's film, Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow), who is given the part that everyone thinks should have gone to Sally. When Skye presents a handful of ecstasy to the partygoers, the revelry heats up as the characters'pent-up thoughts and feelings surface, and as Joe and Sally confront the uncertainty and secrets of their relationship.

Throughout the film, Leigh and Cumming skillfully capture a broad range of social interactions, from an intimate and tension-filled scene between Joe and his neighbor Monica in a storage closet to a competitive game of charades among the guests. The plot tends to drag during a lengthy segment when Joe and Sally's friends honor the couple's rekindled relationship with speeches and talent show-like performances. But when Paltrow's character presents 16 hits of ecstasy, the illicit drug serves as a much-needed stimulant for both the tired party guests and the sluggish scene.

The dramatic consequence of the characters'drug use is rather predictable. We have after all witnessed over an hour's worth of tension, misunderstandings and hidden feelings, so it is only a matter of time before the drugs take effect and the relationships begin to unravel. But the unleashing of all the characters'problems can be deviously entertaining at times. At one point, Sally and her best friend of 20 years, Sophia, share an emotional breakdown. The scene's dimension is enhanced by the recollection of the actresses'role as best friends in the high-school classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High nearly 20 years ago. Later on, Joe and Sally head into the Hollywood Hills to search for their runaway dog. In the midst of the hunt, their relationship disintegrates as they realize that the ties uniting them are more precarious than they imagined. The film's dramatic ante increases to almost improbable proportions, but the filmmakers'control of the story's varying moods and the characters'convincing performances keep the set-ups from feeling like histrionics.

The film has an enjoyable voyeuristic quality derived from being able to witness many of these celebrated actors play what seems to be themselves. Of course, they are not playing themselves, but, considering that the parts were written with each actor in mind and that the directors allow every member of the ensemble to bring their characters to life, this movie feels a lot like a privileged peek into Hollywood's private lives.

--Daniel Steinhart