Los Angeles Times

The Anniversary Party


Friday June 8, 2001

     "The Anniversary Party" is a celebration from hell.
     A successful British novelist, Joe Therrian (Alan Cumming), and his American movie-actress wife, Sally (Jennifer Jason Leigh), mark their sixth wedding anniversary with a gathering at their exquisite Neutra mountaintop home overlooking the expanse of the Los Angeles Basin. Sally and Joe would seem the perfect Hollywood couple, but they're teetering on the brink of disaster, as are most of their guests.
     It is hard to recollect finding so many insecure people all in one place at the same time, and the atmosphere is so thick with tension it could be sliced with a knife.
     Exposing the misery and instability lurking beneath the shimmering surface of Hollywood is virtually as old a ploy as the movies. However, Cumming and Leigh, who also co-wrote and co-directed, bring to their stylish, incisive and compassionate film an immediacy and a bracing snap.
     Cumming and Leigh began imagining their film while sitting around her kitchen table, drawing on personal observations to create roles for themselves and their friends.
     Shot adroitly by cinematographer John Bailey on a 19-day schedule with digital video cameras, "The Anniversary Party" is studded with striking portrayals, starting with those of Cumming and Leigh, who express an emotional range at once wide and deep; indeed, Sally represents perhaps Leigh's most mature performance.
     The priorities and longings of their people are shared by all kinds of folks. That Sally and Joe and their friends are all involved in the film industry or would like to be not surprisingly intensifies the challenge of balancing personal life and career, making the film all the sharper a commentary on modern relationships.
     Sally, Joe and their friends are not the treacherous phonies and monsters that tend to populate movies about movie people. If they are not what they seem, it's because they either don't know who they are or they are too scared to show their true selves or perhaps a combination of both. Joe is poised to make his directorial debut with his adaptation of his novel that everyone is sure is based on Sally, who is to be played by hugely successful young star Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow), who tends to be gushy and giddy but is a very quick study. Sally, whose career is ebbing just as Joe's is taking off in a new direction, is caught in a potential "A Star Is Born," Vicki Lester-Norman Maine predicament--with additional underlying complications.
     Key among the Therrians' guests are Cal Gold (Kevin Kline), a recent Oscar winner and Sally's co-star in a comedy currently shooting under the direction of Mac Forsyth (John C. Reilly). Mac's wife, Evie (Jane Adams), an actress and a recent mother, is on diet pills that have driven her to a state of near-hysteria, causing her to envy the seeming serenity of Cal's wife, Sophia (Phoebe Cates), who's given up her career to devote herself to her husband and two small children. Also on hand are Joe's glamorous and proprietary old girlfriend (Jennifer Beals, especially fine), an international celebrity photographer, and Sally's droll best pal (Michael Panes). Also present are Sally's business manager (John Benjamin Hickey), concerned about the Therrians living beyond their means, and his rather gauche wife (Parker Posey).
     The most intriguing couple aside from Sally and Joe prove to be their neighbors Monica (Mina Badie) and Ryan (Denis O'Hare). Their inclusion represents a peace offering, for Ryan, an uptight novelist and recovering alcoholic, is being driven nuts by the barking of Sally and Joe's beloved dog; Monica sympathizes with her husband but is increasingly seduced by the glamour of the high-powered company. Sprinkle some ecstasy amid this crowd, and all manner of emotions, painful truths and unforeseen incidents surface as the collective high begins to wear off.
     What emerges most significantly is not just that Sally and Joe genuinely love each other, but also the possibility that love may not be enough. It would seem that Hollywood couples from Garbo and Gilbert to Tom and Nicole have made the same discovery.

The Anniversary Party, 2001. MPAA-rated: R, for language, drug use and nudity. A Fine Line Features presentation. Co-writers-directors Jennifer Jason Leigh, Alan Cumming. Producers Joanne Sellar, Cumming, Leigh. Executive producer Andrew Hurwitz. Cinematographer John Bailey. Editors Carol Littleton, Suzanne Spangler. Music Michael Penn. Costumes Christopher Lawrence. Set decorator Barbara Turner. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes. Jennifer Jason Leigh as Sally. Alan Cumming as Joe. Gwyneth Paltrow as Skye. Kevin Kline as Cal.

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