Rated R - Running Time: 1:55 - Released 6/8/01

The Anniversary Party is one of those movies that will get great notices but will flop at the box office. It is an actor's movie, a director's movie, and a critic's movie, because it contains some of the most intense acting currently available on the big screen (much of it ad-libbed), but not the type of film properly appreciated by the majority of moviegoers, because it doesn't have much of a plot. It is a character-driven ensemble film with about a dozen people sharing practically equal roles, except for its two leads, Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who serve not only as the film's onscreen focal couple, but as its co-writers, co-directors, and co-producers.

As I mentioned, there is precious little to summarize in the story department. British-born novelist turned director Joe Therrian (Cumming) and his actress wife, Sally Nash (Leigh), are celebrating their 6th wedding anniversary at their Southern California home a few months after resolving a bitter breakup. A very private couple, they have invited only their closest friends, including Oscar-winning actor Cal Gold (Kevin Kline) and his wife Sophia (Kline's real wife Phoebe Cates), famous actress Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow), who has just agreed to star in Joe's upcoming directorial debut (a film adaptation of one of his novels), and director Mac Forsyth (John C. Reilly), who is currently directing Sally and Cal in a film together. In addition to these and other friends, the couple has invited their next-door neighbors, Ryan and Monica Rose (Denis O'Hare, Mina Badie), with whom they have engaged in a vicious verbal battle regarding the incessant barking of Sally's dog, Otis. The Roses' invitation was meant as a gesture of goodwill, but their appearance at the party causes raised eyebrows among the other guests, most of whom have heard about the nastiness between the two couples.

The film proceeds along a linear path for the duration of the nearly 24-hour-long party, during which time we learn much about everyone there and his or her association with Joe and Sally. During several well-shot and richly atmospheric ensemble segments, including a spirited charades game, a present-giving session in the couples' honor, and a group Ecstasy trip partaken in by some (but not all) of the partygoers, we witness the uncovering of layer after layer of each guest's personality, learning their deepest secrets, their various personality flaws, and their relationships with Joe and Sally during the recent split. Of course, the ones we get to know best of all are Joe and Sally themselves, who have a number of inner- and outer conflicts putting various stresses on their marriage, even though they assure everyone they're on the mend.

Some will see this film as a colossal waste of time and a lesson in the psychoses of the chronically pretentious. And in a way, they will have a point. But Cumming and Leigh have achieved something many filmmakers strive for and fail to reach: simple reality. This film is a showcase of acting talent, a mixed bag of distinct and interesting characters interacting with the kind of deeply personal behavior we see in real life, but seldom on film. There are many funny moments, but the primary tone is the anxious undercurrent of a vaguely uncomfortable situation, and that is skillfully brought out by this talented creative team. ****½

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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