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With: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Alan Cumming, Kevin Kline, Phoebe Cates, John C. Reilly, Jane Adams, Jennifer Beals, John Benjamin Hickey, Parker Posey, Mina Badie, Denis O'Hare, Gwyneth Paltrow
Written by: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Alan Cumming
Directed by: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Alan Cumming
MPAA Rating: R for language, drug use and nudity
Running Time: 115
Date: 05/15/2001

The Anniversary Party (2001)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

A 'Party' with Punch

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I can't imagine that Jennifer Jason Leigh or Alan Cumming have much to complain about. Between them, they've appeared in some of the best and most interesting movies of the last 10 years: Miami Blues, Short Cuts, eXistenZ, Eyes Wide Shut, Titus, Spy Kids, etc. But still they felt that urge that many actors get to take things into their own hands and create roles with some meat on them for themselves.

Lucky for us they did. Though it threatens to be a long and talky stage-bound story, The Anniversary Party actually comes to life and emerges as a most entertaining and heartfelt American movie.

Leigh and Cumming co-directed, using a Sony DSR-500 digital camera, over 19 days. As with Wayne Wang's The Center of the World, the speed, cost-effectiveness and convenience of using such a lightweight, simple camera allow actors to spend more time developing their performances. But without a trained director these experiments can begin to look like acting-class maneuvers or self-indulgent ruminations.

Somehow, though, Leigh and Cumming keep everything moving, and they succeed through the dark humor they inject in their script. When Jane Adams moans, "Having a baby changes your whole perspective -- you can't be the center of your own world anymore," she's clearly still being very selfish, and we laugh at her silliness. This laughter helps us to skid around the characters' neuroses at first, but it also brings us closer to them as the movie goes on.

Leigh and Cumming play a married couple (he a writer and director, she an actress) that have just re-emerged from a painful break-up and are now celebrating their sixth anniversary. Invited to the party: their best friends Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates (essentially playing themselves with their real-life kids), Leigh's current film director John C. Reilly and his neurotic wife Jane Adams, photographer Jennifer Beals, accountant John Benjamin Hickey and his wife Parker Posey, next-door neighbors Mina Badie and Denis O'Hare, and Gwyneth Paltrow as movie star Skye Davidson.

The writers-directors begin by giving some of the movie's conflicts a small push to get them started. The next-door neighbors hate Leigh and Cumming's dog Otis and their coming to the party is meant as a kind of uneasy truce. And Paltrow will be playing the role based on Leigh's life in Cumming's new film, a subject that causes Leigh much anxiety. In addition, Reilly masks his unhappiness with Leigh's performance in her current film. And on top of it all, Cumming and Leigh are in the middle of negotiating whether or not to have a baby. But once the ball gets rolling, these conflicts seem less scripted and begin to emerge on their own.

As the party begins to wind down after the film's first hour, the revelers keep things going, and open their emotions up even more, by taking Ecstasy. This leads to all kinds of mayhem, from Reilly directing a naked underwater dance show starring Jane Adams and Parker Posey to Cumming sneaking off to make out with his cute next-door neighbor (Mina Badie, Leigh's half-sister in real life).

Some of the complaints I've heard about The Anniversary Party argue that it doesn't earn its pathos, that it's a pretentious home movie. I disagree. The dialogue never seems forced or empty; indeed it all seems improvised and perfectly natural, made up as it goes along. And I confess that the party becomes all the more resonant though its Hollywood connection. Being at a party with movie stars automatically makes it more glamorous and exciting (one character even looks like Peter Sellers).

The Anniversary Party gets far closer to this elusive celebrity dynamic than Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, without even trying. Their problems seem more interesting somehow, or maybe we're fascinated that our own problems are not all that far off from theirs.

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