**½/**** Image A Sound A Extras A+
starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Alan Cumming, Jane Adams, Jennifer Beals
written and directed by Alan Cumming/Jennifer Jason Leigh
by Walter Chaw The overriding feeling in and of The Anniversary Party is high anxiety. The film represents a study of the ways in which insecurities manifest themselves through a dazzling panoply of multifarious defense mechanisms: pretension, jealousy, aggression, bootlicking, hostility, inappropriate flirtation, and casual drug abuse. It's telling that for a toast, someone recites the last stanza of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach"*--telling not for the sentiment of steadfastness in the face of societal unkindness, but for the fact that the poem has already once received a revision (in 1922 as "The Dover Bitch" by Anthony Hecht) and clearly receives another in Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh's very personal hyphenate debut. Not content to point out that the world is an ugly place, The Anniversary Party dares to suggest that the world's ugliness is very often a product of marauding hordes of neurotic internal demons.
Joe and Sally (Cumming and Leigh)--the one a famed British novelist, the other a respected actress losing her focus on the verge of "mother" roles--throw a bash to celebrate their sixth year of marriage (after spending one year separated). They're looking to start a family together despite the shakiness of their (re)union, and the party, attended by Hollywood glitterati and Joe and Sally's litigious neighbours, serves as a platform for examining the strains of marriage, the pressures of career, and the difficulties of interpersonal politics in every permutation. It's too dramatic and it verges dangerously on the convenient, but there's a humanistic impulse at the heart of the piece that informs the performances and carries it past its high-decibel epiphanies.
The guest list includes birdlike actress Claire (Jane Adams, doing Meg Ryan) and her husband Mac (John C. Reilly), who, as the esteemed director of Sally's new film, is helpless witness to her newfound bootlessness; Sally's co-star Cal (Kevin Kline) and his retired actress wife Sophia (Kline's real-life wife, Phoebe Cates; the couple's offspring also play their children onscreen); Joe's best friend Gina (Jennifer Beals), of whom Sally is virulently envious; business managers Jerry and Judy (John Benjamin Hickey and Parker Posey); A-list flavour-of-the-month Skye (Gwyneth Paltrow), who hooks up with Peter Sellers doppelgänger Levi (Michael Panes); and pesky neighbours Ryan and Monica Rose (Dennis O'Hare and Mina Badie).
As company begins to arrive, The Anniversary Party, shot over nineteen days on digital video by noted cinematographer John Bailey, takes on a natural ebb-and-flow stemming from the custom-written (and largely-improvised) roles and the simple fact that the cast is composed mostly of close friends of Cumming and Leigh. Betraying those unaffected cadences are various tensions too obviously intended as rising subplots to be resolved by film's end. That instinct towards "patness" betrays The Anniversary Party's Dogme-esque thematic naturalism. On that track, I was relieved to see the film resist the Dogme impulses of non-formal shaky-camera vérité and found lighting--Dogme entries (Tillsammans and julien donkey-boy, to name two) tend towards the aesthetically putrid. If nothing else, Bailey's work points to the possibility of DV as a viable motion-picture medium. It still doesn't look perfect, but expecting the worst, it looks fantastic.
The strength of The Anniversary Party is in the performances; the weakness is that it rambles and has a tough time finding its pulse. While there's no question that a formless Wong Kar-wai coalescing is the intended effect, it takes a great deal of discipline for that barely-structured chaos to find itself as a feasible story and character set. That the players each manage to find a moment of subtlety and depth in the midst of a dedicatedly theatrical construct speaks volumes about the level of talent involved in the piece. The best moments belong to the under-seen Mina Badie as she struggles to understand her recalcitrant prick of a husband, and to Matt Malloy, delivering a toast to his apparent ex-lover Joe.
The Anniversary Party is heartfelt and affected in equal part, the product of actors' occasional desire to be understood as human beings. Yet the film succeeds as it does because true relationships seep through the attempts to formalize them. It has more than its share of good moments and, a little like Altman's Gosford Park, it makes one wish that if plot were indeed secondary then plot should've been jettisoned. I really liked spending time with these people despite how uncomfortable things become over the course of The Anniversary Party; I only wish it didn't pan out so much like a movie.
New Line's DVD presentation of The Anniversary Party comes packed with edifying special features. A 20-minute Sundance Channel documentary ("Anatomy of a Scene") provides interesting interviews with Bailey, Cumming and Leigh, and editors Carol Littleton and Suzanne Spangler. It runs deeper than your typical production featurette. A commentary track with Cumming and Leigh is affectionate and informative, detailing the behind-the-scenes relationships and how they informed the screenwriting and direction process. Most interesting for me was the revelation that most of the film's events were based on things that had actually happened to the cast, even the most unlikely or outlandish. Where the film works mainly as a character study, the commentary functions remarkably well as an examination of fame. Aside from the commentary for The Blair Witch Project, this is the first time I've listened to a yak-track that actually changes the tenor and thrust of the film upon which it comments. It's fascinating.
In an anamorphically-enhanced, 1.85:1 (digital-to-film-to-digital) transfer, The Anniversary Party shines as brightly as it ever has. A preternatural sharpness is softened by post-production treatments that at times allow one to forget the crude nature of the original source. (One underwater sequence was filmed in 35mm.) We've come to expect no less than greatness from New Line and they don't disappoint here. The included Dolby 5.1 audio presents the dialogue with clarity and life--as the film is almost entirely talk-driven, that's a good thing. There is little cause and little use for big sound. Rounding out the disc: the trailer; sparse cast and crew filmographies; a DVD-ROM feature that allows The Anniversary Party to be viewed in conjunction with its screenplay (invaluable for film students); web links; and a link to the New Line promotional website. Originally published: March 7, 2002.
*"Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night." return