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Crossing 'Party' Lines

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 22, 2001


    'The Anniversary Party' Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh (with Jennifer Beals, far left) wrote, directed and star in "The Anniversary Party." (Fine Line Features)
"The Anniversary Party" is an enjoyable, no-holds-barred actor's workshop movie. Shot by veteran cinematographer John Bailey on digital video, this is the kind of experience in which performers are given all the time and indulgence in the world to soar or fall on their faces. Whatever they do – one imagines – is watched at the end of the day on video and roundly applauded by their fellow thespians, because we must support our own.

But although the movie – written and directed by Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh – falls occasional prey to pretension, it's a classic guilty pleasure. There are good moments, saucy moments, funny moments, dull moments, bad-acting moments and enough poolside skinny-dipping to make you dream of a trimmer middle, bigger breasts or sharper definition.

The characters we're watching are mostly actors, directors or hangers-on in the Hollywood business. They have gathered at the home of writer Joe Therrian (Cumming) and actor Sally Nash (Leigh), who are celebrating many things, including their sixth anniversary, after a one-year separation; their decision to start a family; and a movie-to-be. Joe's about to direct his first movie, based on his novel.

The lead character, a woman very much inspired by Joe's wife, is to be played by younger-than-Sally actress Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow). Cue the cat claws.

Speaking of cats, Joe and Sally are having an outright war – verbal and legal – with their neighbors Monica (Mina Badie) and Ryan (Denis O'Hare) Rose over dog issues.

It seems that Joe's darling dog, Otis, barks a little too often, among many things. Joe and Sally invite them to the party, hoping to mend fences. But neither couple can refrain from sarcastic comments.

Little by little, we get to know the ensemble. Director Mac (John C. Reilly) comes with his neurotic actress-wife, Clair (Jane Adams), who's freaking because they've left their infant with a brand-new babysitter.

Well-known actor Cal Gold (Kevin Kline) comes with his wife, Sophia (Kline's real wife, Phoebe Cates), who's dropped her career to raise their children. And there are others, including Judy (Parker Posey) and Jerry Adams (John Benjamin Hickey), who are Joe and Sally's business managers; Gina (Jennifer Beals), Joe's former girlfriend and a great photographer; and Levi Panes (Michael Panes), a Peter Sellers look-alike who's a close pal of Sally's.

And then we have the aforementioned neighbors, the Roses, who play unintentional comic relief. Unfortunately, Joe and Sally's actor friends, who have obviously heard a few of the war stories, keep making faux pas.

"Oh," says one actor-friend upon meeting the Roses. "You're them."

I was pleasantly surprised by Cumming, who has finally discovered that a little restraint goes a long way. But, ironically, the movie's least persuasive element is its central one: the rocky relationship between the sexually ambiguous Joe and the often-aggressive Sally, which is marred by occasionally hackneyed writing.

Also, it's a matter of personal judgment as to whether a pull-out-all-the-stops emotional scene between Sally and her best friend, Sophia, constitutes great acting or cheap parading.

The great thing is, you're taken into a zone other movies wouldn't have allowed – they would display more embarrassment or shame. This movie takes away the moral netting, giving each high-wire act an added charge.

What works best, for my money, is the light satire that plays with all of our shared notions about life in Hollywood, including an extended Ecstasy-popping scene in which the partygoers become a little too relaxed.

"I can't find my husband or my beeper," the forlorn Clair says to the Golds, as everyone floats around on cloud nine. "Have you seen either of them?"

"The Anniversary Party" (R, 115 minutes) – Contains nudity, sexual scenes, obscenity and drug use. At the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle, Outer Circle and Cinema Arts Fairfax.


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