"The Anniversary Party" (IMDb listing) is the brainchild of co-writer and co-directors Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh. The two formed a steady friendship with they co-starred together on Broadway's revival of "Cabaret" and decided to call in their fellow actor friends to conspire on this digital video, Dogma 95-influenced film. The end result of this celebratory picture is something maybe Leigh and Cumming should've kept to themselves and pulled out only during their own parties in place of subjecting this rambling film to the moviegoing public over the course of this summer.
"The Anniversary Party" stars the two creators as married couple Sally (Leigh) and Joe (Cumming). Trying to rekindle their 6-year-long marriage after a short separation, the two decide to throw a party to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Inviting best friends (Kevin Kline, Phoebe Cates, Parker Posey, John C. Reilly), hated neighbors (Mina Badie, Denis O'Hare), and professional acquaintances (Gwyneth Paltrow), the evening unfolds as any cinematic party would, with petty jealousy, drugs, self-loathing, drinking, and infidelity.
Taking place in the wealthy hills of Los Angeles, "The Anniversary Party" is a very personal production from actors who obviously love to act. The first mistake "Party" makes is taking away any fictional elements through the decision to make all the characters' vocations show business. The film isn't Hollywood satire, so for every telling confession that a character makes (Phoebe Cates's speech about her happiness over leaving the industry can only be taken as thinly disguised truth), there are four or five tiresome scenes of industry jargon and "insider" emotion that most audiences will not be able to relate to. It's sad to see that Leigh and Cumming have made this selfish decision since the picture's universal themes of the power of gatherings and the necessity of truth are powerful enough on their own. The picture doesn't need self-absorbed talk of "dailies" and "Who's your D.P.?" It minimizes the impact of the desires on display in this film.
In assembling such a large, diverse cast, "The Anniversary Party" unknowingly has the goods right from the start. While performers like Parker Posey, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Alan Cumming trot out their standard cinema personalities (bitchy, damaged, bisexual), it's a relief to see Kevin Kline play loose and against type just a little bit in his small part, and equally as interesting to see John C. Reilly playing a character in control, and not just his common sidekick role. "Party" infuses a multi-character, Robert Altman spirit into the proceedings, but it also clutches on to Altman's deadly pretentiousness and inability to know when to quit.
Even with her small role, the biggest thrill in "The Anniversary Party" is to watch Phoebe Cates return to the screen after a long absence. Watching her reunite with her "Fast Times At Ridgemont High" co-star Leigh is a treat, with the chemistry falling right back into place almost 20 years after "Fast Times" was released. Cates is one of the few characters to get out of the film with her dignity intact, it's just a shame we probably won't see her for another 10 years.
Just like a real party, you can easily spot the exact moment when "Anniversary Party" should've drawn to a close. That moment comes when Ecstasy is pulled out and ingested by the remaining members of the party. The partaking of drugs usually sounds the death rattle in most films, and the Ecstasy scenes in "Party" provide a warm conduit for the players to unleash their exasperating actor's school tricks and fetal-position-inducing emotional fits. And if there is any actor with a bigger hankering for emotional breakdowns, it's Jennifer Jason Leigh. The Ecstasy scenes take up the last act of the film and propels "Party" to end on a sour note.
In sustaining the schizophrenic tone of the picture, this bright, insightful tale of celebration is suddenly brought back to earth with a suicide by an unseen character, thus provoking more unjustified sympathy. Without any emotional, moral, or character arcs seen to completion, "Party" ends up missing its goal of emotional truth by a mile. And maybe that was the point: to run with an idea just to see where it could lead. "The Anniversary Party" doesn't end gracefully. It ends exactly where it began, in the middle of a very deep thought.
Filmfodder Grade: D+