Main Page 
Love Life 
In Store 

       TV Listings

It's My 'Party' and I'll Chew Scenery If I Want To

By Stephen Hunter
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)
When actors write, produce and direct a movie starring themselves and their friends, you can bet that no matter what the nominal topic of the film is, the real subject is acting.

And that's exactly the case with Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh's "The Anniversary Party," which is a celebration of the actor's art – but not the dramatist's. Each star and each of the friends get a really big actory moment: Wahhhh, why don't you love me? Wahhhh, I do love you but I also hate you. Glub, glub, glub! Rant, rant, rant. Whine, whine, whine. Lookatmelookatmelookatme!

The two stars met during their run in "Cabaret" in New York and clearly liked each other a great deal. Thus they came up with this project, two hours' worth of clever improvisation on the subject of showbiz marriages as they play out over a long night's social event in a sexy-cool L.A. canyon modern. The cast appears to be their chums, and the whole thing was shot on digital video, a flexible, inexpensive way of turning out a product that is technically first-rate.

The result is something like being stuck at an audition for someone else's play, which you haven't read, won't invest in, and don't care too much about. It's also like being stuck at a party where you know nobody. Sometimes the bitchy interplay between the subjects is quite amusing, but most of the time you're thinking "Who are these people?"

Well, basically they're the unhappy Mr. and Mrs. Therrian, though she's of course better known as the fabulous (if fading) Sally Nash. Joe (Cumming) and Sally (Leigh) have been married for a tumultuous six years and survived, however tentatively, a few separations. They think all that's in the past, but of course one of the requirements of the marriage reassessment genre is that nothing is in the past. Today, as the movie opens and finds the two happily, cozily abed, a stock market report on the marriage would find him up 150 and her down 150, though the marriage average still is over the mystical 10,000 mark. It's the Joneses who should be keeping up with them.

They're stars of different media. She's a film actress, but has been dropping ever so slowly and her movies aren't breaking even anymore. He's a novelist of the brash, beloved Brit sort. Think of, say, Martin Amis married to . . . well, to Jennifer Jason Leigh. Joe is the author of a bestseller so fabulous that a studio is letting him direct the screenplay he wrote from it. The book and the movie are about Sally and it's the part that would reinvent her career; and, of course, he's giving the part to that damned Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow). Possibly worse, he's invited Skye to their party.

Can we talk? I mean, really. Who wouldn't give a part – any part – to Gwyneth over Jennifer? I mean, who's kidding who? You'd choose Gwyneth for a date, too; or to interview; or to look at pictures of; or to collect the garbage, shine the shoes, walk the dog or crawl naked through a pit of fresh gopher guts for. Still, the movie represents the tension over Sally's lost part and Joe's professional courtship of Skye as a major issue, which is so inside it's hard to connect with for those of us who don't live in sexy-cool L.A. canyon moderns.

Other guests include a movie star and his wife, Sally's business manager and his wife, a couple of Joe's old friends, and one of Sally's old friends. Everybody gets liquored up, and the magic interlude – say between the last third of the first glass of wine and the second third of the second glass of wine – where everybody's happy, funny and charming disappears on schedule, and the fangs and furies come out.

You've seen this movie before; you've even probably been to this party before. If the details aren't predictable, the formula certainly is: Each couple will uncouple, explore other options, have a moment of revelation, then swim back through pain and anguish to their primary mate, concluding that they've still got a chance if they only work a little harder. Little flirtships break out all over the place; sudden spurts of animosity and truth strike like lightning; emotional squalls roll in from the west and the weather gets wet for a bit.

"The Anniversary Party" is at its best when it's snippy and bitchy about showbiz realities. It shows these gifted narcissists for the gifted narcissists they really are: struggling for advantage and attention, keeping the career going, looking to exploit little weaknesses in today's friends who may be tomorrow's enemies. In other words, it's just like a party for the insurance industry, the English department, the battalion's noncommissioned officers or, God forbid, the newspaper's feature section.

Paltrow deserves a good-sport award for playing a bubbleheaded version of herself, an ambitious, rising actress who seems nice but maybe isn't that nice. Mr. and Mrs. Kevin Kline are the star and wife, and they still have something important in common: a great love of him. He gets another good sport award for playing an inflated comic version of himself; his wife, professionally Phoebe Cates, may have the movie's best dramatic moment, a searing speech to the distraught Sally on the terrors of motherhood. (I forgot to tell you Joe wants Sally to have a kid, but you probably already figured that out.)

As some outsider neighbors, Denis O'Hare is annoyingly sanctimonious (as an ex-drunk) and Mina Badie rather poignant. Jennifer Beals, who flashed so dancingly in "Flashdance," has a low-key turn as one of Joe's pals. Parker Posey doesn't really register, and John Benjamin Hickey, as her husband, Sally's business manager, has a vivid few moments when he reveals himself to be a ferocious full-contact charades warrior. Others register dimly.

The big moment is the movie's least compelling: a teary, bleary, screaming, hugging saline-effusion-fest between Joe and Sally on one of L.A.'s low hilltops under the indifferent stars. They pull out all the stops. They let 'em rip, roar, thunder, bubble, boil and trouble. Wahhhh. Now that's acting, but unfortunately that's all it is.

"The Anniversary Party" (115 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for hissy fits, topless pool dipping, and too much salt in the guacamole.


Search Entertainment

Optional Keyword

powered by citysearch.com
More Search Options

"The Anniversary Party"
showtimes and details

Gwyneth Paltrow filmography

Jennifer Jason Leigh filmography

Alan Cumming filmography

Kevin Kline filmography

© Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company