On its surface, The Anniversary Party is an unremarkable film. It more or less comes off as a vanity project for Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming (the two write, direct, co-produce, and star). Were this actually true, though, I most likely would not have bothered to rent it twice. The thing is, it's actually a deceptive flick: intelligence hidden beneath a veneer of Hollywood self-love.
Sally (Jason Leigh) and Joe (Cumming) are a celebrity couple. She's an American actress who in her late 30s, and therefore past her prime. He is a British pop novelist who is about to direct a film based on his latest work. Their marriage is just now mending from a tumultuous seperation, and they are celebrating their five months of reconciliation on their six-year anniversary.
The list of party guests is comprised of a veritable who's who of the star duo's actor-friends. Kevin Kline is Cal Gold, a respected and self-centered actor whose wife Sophia (Phoebe Cates) left Hollywood to become a mother. John C. Reilly is the director of Sally's latest flick (classic screwball comedy fans will recognize it as a remake of My Man Godfrey). Parker Posey is unfortunately underutilized as a family friend (we do get to see her breasts, though). Gwenyth Paltrow (!) also shows up as Skye Davidson, an excitable starlet who raises the admirably contained ire of Sally.
The Anniversary Party is divided into two sections. The first half is the preparation for and exectuion of the shindig proper. People get a little drunk, exchange pleasantries, and hold back judgmental statements until they are well out of earshot. Here, the camera weaves and bobs through conversations, catching odd snippets of exposition here and there.
Of course, in the second half, everything goes to hell. The turning point is an extended toast (which provides some of the better dramatic moments). After some comfort and discomfort, Ectasy is produced, and problems come to the forefront as everybody, in their extreme happiness, manages to tear away at their respective relationships.
When the film is naturalistic is when it works best - it is, for the most part, a very easy-going film. However, in the moments (especially towards the end) when it tries to be dramatic, it doesn't work. For all their training and thespian expertise, do Cumming and Jason Leigh really think a screaming match is going to be interesting to an audience? It's far too easy to tune out.
If The Anniversary Party never quite reaches the heights of drama it wants to reach, it is forgivable. We are allowed a glimpse into the lives of the rich and fascinating, and a quite convincing one at that. There hasn't been a group of actors so easy with each other since This is Spinal Tap, and the intimate cinematography really draws that out.
The DVD contains an episode of IFC's "The Anatomy of a Scene" and in the numerous interviews, diagrams, and visuals presented, there is a pretty accurate explanation of WHY things work. These people have exactly the confidence in the project that it deserves, and that's heartening.