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The Anniversary Party

Director: Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming
Cast: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Alan Cumming, Kevin Klein, Phoebe Cates, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jane Adams, John C. Reilly, Parker Posey

(Fine Line Features; 2001)

It's Their Party

The Anniversary Party is a collaboration between Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, who wrote, produced, directed, and star in the film. The two reportedly devised the idea after starring together in a recent stage production of Cabaret. The Anniversary Party, however, lacks the raw energy and inventiveness that made Cabaret memorable.


The film follows 24 hours in the lives of Sally Nash (Leigh), an actress past her prime, and Joe Therrian (Cumming), a novelist-turned-film-director, who are celebrating their sixth wedding anniversary after a year of separation. The gathering also includes Joe and Sally’s litigious neighbors Monica and Ryan (Mina Badie and Denis O’Hare), as well as friends and former lovers played by a melange of indie film favorites. The press material for the film describes it as a “portrait of marriage and friendships, warts and all . . . a dizzying study of love,” but The Anniversary Party is shallower fare, although it does have some memorable scenes. The best moments capture the petty rivalries, flirtations, and hypocrisies that inflect relationships among the gathered friends and enemies.


When movie starlet Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow)—who has been offered the lead in Joe’s movie, which Sally had believed would be hers—arrives at the party, tensions surface. Skye’s gift to the couple is a collection of Ecstasy pills that she tritely presents as “love itself.” This addition of drugs to the mix of champagne, clandestine flirting, and heady conversation moves the film into predictable territory. The Anniversary Party attempts to be both a personal drama about love and temptation and an examination of the pressures of the Hollywood movie machine, but these two ideas detract from each other, and the film ends up looking good but saying little.


The plot and approach of The Anniversary Party could be compared with Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (The Celebration, 1998), which also portrays a doomed party over the course of an eventful evening. Like Vinterberg, Leigh and Cumming use handheld digital video cameras, but the resulting sense of immediacy is never intimate. Set mostly in Sally and Joe’s Hollywood Hills home, the film observes the emergence of secrets and jealousies among the characters. As in Festen, where the familial manor channels the presence of ghostly guests, Joe and Sally’s house itself is a major presence in the film, a backdrop that at times communicates more about the characters than the dialogue. The camera often dotes lovingly on the details of the interior, lingering on an Eames chair or perfectly decorated walls. This fascination with the trappings of Sally and Joe’s wealth creates the same voyeuristic aesthetic that you see in an InStyle magazine spread: it’s like modern retro furniture porn. These carefully detailed features, right down to the Keihl’s products in the bathroom and Evian water that Joe hands out to stave off the ill effects of the Ecstasy, suggest this is all clever marketing.


The film may not be consciously attempting to sell the dream of Hollywood-fueled materialism, but it often has that effect. Despite the fact that the characters are revealed as genuinely miserable, the movie offers no analysis of their shallowness, even when providing obvious contrasts to their lives of privilege. The presence of Sally and Joe’s Spanish-speaking maids, one named “America,” suggests a world outside that of the insulated partygoers. The maids are shown laboring to prepare for the celebration—arranging the food and flowers—and the filmmakers sometimes cut to scenes of them laughing or conversing with guests during the party. That a few of the guests can communicate with the women in basic Spanish implies that any social inequity might be “managed” by showing respect for the maids’ cultural heritage. The scenes with the maids appear to be a shallow ploy to integrate them into Sally and Joe’s existence, a token recognition of their actual work.


At the same time, The Anniversary Party makes gestures towards intelligent consideration of Joe and Sally’s desires—for fame, sex, even family. The opening and ending shots of Sally peering longingly at Joe while he sleeps suggest tired cliches about women’s efforts to define themselves through their love for men. Sally is disappointed that she has not been asked to star in Joe’s directorial debut in a role that everyone suspects is based on her. The film implies that finding herself in Joe’s work gives Sally a sense of comfort and confirmation of their love, even if he writes about the trials of the relationship. Joe’s angry admission that the woman in his novel is much more of a composite figure of all the women he has known disappoints Sally.


Other women in the film share Sally’s fantasy that they are Joe’s inspiration, from the famous Skye to the inhibited neighbor Monica. Joe capitalizes on this power and uses it to rack up sexual conquests. In highlighting the effects that Joe’s writing has on the women he meets, Leigh and Cumming appear to be making a point about the relationship between art and desire, particularly as this relationship affects the vain movie industry guests—male and female. This could have led to a satirical investigation of their obsession with appearances. Instead, the film revels in the women’s pain and anguish that comes with being unable to fulfill the many roles that the men in their lives—directors and husbands—impose on them.


Similarly, The Anniversary Party squanders an opportunity to examine the industry that everyone involved knows so well. The line between characters and the people who play them is effectively blurred because Cumming and Leigh use many of their real-life friends in roles based on real relationships. (For example, Phoebe Cates is charming as Sally’s best friend, a former actress who has left her career behind to be wife to hammy actor Cal Gold [Cates’ real life husband Kevin Klein] and mother to their children [played by their children].) This examination could have been particularly interesting from the perspective of those artists—like Leigh and Cumming—who have often successfully straddled the border between Hollywood sell-out-ism and indie artistic credibility. Instead, The Anniversary Party plays like a Hollywood version of The Real World, neatly edited and set in a striking but sterile home, but with few surprises.

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