The Anniversary Party

It sounds too cozy to bear. Actors Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, who co-starred on Broadway in the musical Cabaret, have teamed up to act in a movie in which they make their directing debuts. They also wrote the screenplay, focusing on Joe (Cumming), a novelist about to direct his first film, and Sally (Leigh), an actress on a career downslide, who celebrate their newly mended marriage by throwing a party in honor of their sixth anniversary. The story will take place over twenty-four hours in a house in the Hollywood Hills. For maximum efficiency during the nineteen days of filming, The Anniversary Party was shot, fast and cheap, on digital video. For a cast, the co-directors called on friends: Gwyneth Paltrow, Parker Posey, John C. Reilly, Jennifer Beals, John Benjamin Hickey, Michael Panes, Denis O'Hare, Kevin Kline, Phoebe Cates (Kline's wife) and Mina Badie (Leigh's half-sister). Everyone did his own hair and makeup. No star trips on this set, and no Hollywood bullshit.

By all rights, the final result should be a self-indulgent mess — and, in truth, the final third of the film comes close. But until Leigh and Cumming let their actorly urge for high drama blunt their flair for bracing wit and subtle feeling, they turn what could have been an acting stunt into an intimate and compelling study of bruised emotions.

The film starts on a note of comic tension. The reconciliation of Joe and Sally is fragile at best. He is a Peter Pan of uncertain sexuality, and she is understandably pissed that he's chosen a younger actress, Skye Davidson (Paltrow), to play the character from his novel that is based on Sally. "I think you're my first goddess," Joe tells Skye, a remark that galls Sally. Things get worse when Skye tells Sally that she's been watching her movies since she was a kid. For an actress pushing forty, that remark merits an Ouch!

All the actors have their moments, notably Kline as an aging thespian and Badie and O'Hare as outsiders who wander into this den of egos. Leigh and Cumming were fortunate to secure the services of master cinematographer John Bailey (Ordinary People, As Good As It Gets), who brings textured marvels of light and shadow to digital camerawork that is often crude in lesser hands.t's only when the guests head for the pool to play truth games on Ecstasy while Leigh and Cumming head for the hills for a Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? sparring match that the movie collapses under the weight of its artsy-fartsy ambitions. My advice on how to get the most from this Party is: Leave early.

From The Archives Issue 872: July 5, 2001