For The Nashville City Paper
The Anniversary Party has been out for a while but the buzz about it is still growing. As it’s hard to find sophisticated films in the summer, I thought the movie warranted a look, but really, what I want to say is this movie is a blast. I was stunned to find out Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, the two principal characters, not only wrote the script about a night in the lives of a bunch of Hollywood friends, they also directed it.
Leigh and Cumming are both facile actors who shared the spotlight in the recent revival of Cabaret. Still, the idea of going to a movie written by actors about a self-revealing night of reverie, made me feel like I was headed for a train wreck. I couldn’t have been more wrong. A film about self-indulgent people is, obviously, much different than a movie produced self-indulgently. The combination of pointed characterizations, sharp humor, and bitingly astute dialogue not only makes for a thoughtful two hours, it makes for great entertainment.
Sally and Joe Therrian (Leigh and Cumming) play, respectively, an actress whose career is over-ripe, and a bad boy novelist who has written a book based on their lives but will not cast his wife because he thinks she’s too old for the part. On their sixth anniversary they entertain friends to celebrate getting back together after a scorching separation. They’ve invited old pals Cal and Sophie Gold (real life husband and wife Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates) actress and director, Clair and Mac Forsyth (Jane Adams and John. C Reilly), the neighbors, and a few friends “for background,” some of which are onscreen for seconds but exhibit more depth than most actors do given two hours.
Indie favorite Parker Posey is cast against type as an accountant’s wife to odd effect, but Jennifer Beals gives a really smart performance as Joe’s oldest friend. The details of Sally and Joe’s separation are common knowledge, and this is partly what makes the movie work. Those of the creative ilk, particularly in Hollywood, let their emotional flak fly. It’s when people are accustomed to talking about their messed-up selves that they can seamlessly segue from a moment of wrenching truth to “Hey, where’s the dog?” without missing a beat.
The night starts out tame, at least by Hollywood standards, but takes a surreal turn when Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow), the woman Joe has chosen to play Sally, shows up with some Ecstasy in honor of Sally and Joe’s Anniversary. From there on it’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” meets “The Big Chill.” As soon as the drug kicks in, the group’s nostrils collectively hit the air, and, sensing freedom, they slip out of their cocoons. There’s some funny water ballet. Many talk one-on-one, while others dreamily watch what the others are doing. And some fight. There is a straight five minutes of a verbal brawl between Sally and Joe, that is hair-raising. Shot digitally with no gimmicks, the film is not gritty or shaky.
There are no obvious plot points upon which the movie turns. But it doesn’t need any as the carefully-timed exchanges and dead-on body language keeps the pace clipping right along even in some of the longer scenes. Watching Clair talk about motherhood made me laugh and cringe, but also love her for being so honest. But the film is not dour. Most of the mean-spiritedness manages to redeem itself due to the depth of the characterizations.
The casting is sort of a wink to the audience in that Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates seem to be playing who they are in real life. There are references to Sally’s earlier work as a junkie (Leigh played a heroin addict in “Georgia”). Cates, who left the film industry to raise a family with Kevin Kline, is just that here, a mother of two with no career. The vignettes are peppered with enough nuances to give the story weight. The Latino maid, greatly named America, bustles in the background and is not so condescended to that she seems taken advantage of. She just seems invisible.
After the night has ended, after someone has nearly drowned, and some near-fatal disclosure has come and gone, the group is sitting at the table at which Clair gasps ‘The sitter!” The dog, having been missing all night, trots in the front door as if nothing has happened, and the maids, of course, are left to clean up the mess. It’s a truly American story.
The ideas in this film do not come from one place. I congratulate Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming for just trotting out all the political incorrectness and letting the audience make up my their own minds. Those of us who managed to dress ourselves every morning are grateful.
For The City Paper