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    The Anniversary Party

    Couples runneth over

    In "The Anniversary Party," Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh put together a low-budget but vivid ensemble piece about life among the Hollywood set.


    Two of the most talented and recognizable talents in film and theater today, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, have co-written, co-directed and star in a movie that celebrates their characters' six year wedding anniversary, but "The Anniversary Party" is nothing if not a vivid slice-of-life style portrait of 2001 America for the upwardly-mobile working artist class. In an interview following a screening of the film at the Director's Guild of America theater, Leigh and Cumming explained that they wanted to make a movie that was "smart, funny, and scathing." A film that they themselves would like to go and see, that they could write and their friends could star in. They wrote "The Anniversary Party" while on location in Europe, invited/drafted their friends to participate and then pitched the idea to FineLine, which had very little trouble saying yes. The finished product is well produced, shot in all digital video, with an amazing cast of stars playing a set of very interesting characters. The location is the Hollywood Hills, but it might as well be a SoHo loft, East Village tenement, or DUMBO factory. The film's killer cast should get you moving to the theater; the characters will make you glad you came.

    Written and directed by: Alan Cumming, Jennifer Jason Leigh.
    Cast: Alan Cumming, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Steven Freedman, Clara Demedrano, John Benjamin Hickey, Parker Posey, Phoebe Cates, Kevin Kline, Denis O'Hare, Mina Badie, Jane Adams, John C. Reilly, Jennifer Beals, Blair Tefkin, Molly Bryant.

    Related links: Official site
    Sally (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a film actress, and Joe (Alan Cumming), a novelist, are both in their late 30s and married, but have recently been separated. Sally's having trouble recognizing that she's not the new young thing on the set anymore; manchild hubby Joe is about to direct his first feature film and finding it hard to be a husband, respected novelist and novice Hollywood director all at once. Tensions between the two are palpable from the very first shot where the two lovers lie close, heads together in bed: one is sleeping peacefully, the other is lying awake. (Anyone who's ever been in that situation knows it can never be a good sign.) Tonight's party should not only mark their anniversary, but also prove to their friends (and themselves) that they are decidedly back. The delicate balance that Sally and Joe find so difficult to maintain in an empty glass house is thoroughly tested by their eclectic collection of party guests.

    Sally's current director, Mac (John C. Reilly), and co-star, Cal (Kevin Kline), are both having problems working with her; their wives, Clair (Jane Adams) and Sophia (Pheobe Cates), are both mothers, both neurotic and both secretly desperate for the childless Sally to join their sorority of maternity. Joe's oldest friend and former lover, the sultry photographer Gina (Jennifer Beals), and a brand-new admirer of Joe's latest book, the perky and budding Hollywood starlet Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow), are the two guests whose attentions to Joe creep all night up Sally's tingling spine; the presence of non-famous, outsider neighbors Ryan and Monica Rose (well played by Denis O'Hare and Mina Badie — JJL's real-life sister), whose invitation is strictly a political move to hopefully help avoid a lawsuit over Joe and Sally's barking dog, Otis (JJL's real-life dog Otis), keeps everyone on edge, especially Joe.

    The Anniversary Party  
    Apart from its lovely cast, "The Anniversary Party" is also special because it demonstrates for the first time that despite digital filmmaking's origins in the binary code of 1's and 0's, it is possible to produce digital films of nuance and subtlety as beguiling as any celluloid to come before. Much as the photograph developed following its older cousin the daguerreotype, digital film is growing by leaps and bounds and has stopped necessarily being the center of attention when used. It's illustrative that in "The Anniversary Party," one of the main conceits of the story is that the characters (as well as their real-life counterparts for that matter) are aware of their projected personas and the control that they have over what outsiders may perceive. Their fans don't know them at all; their co-workers think they do but really only know a job persona. These artists can relax and be truly themselves only to their family and a few close friends. Shades of meaning and identity don't come naturally to digital film's 1's and 0's. The best digital films to date have taken advantage of the binary opposition, they've been made to look more harsh, more jarringly natural, amateurish, indie and un-Hollywood like the Dogma films or the recent "Center of the World." Directors have almost been using digital technology as a lead character in the story. "The Anniversary Party," however, allows the story and the personalities of its cast and characters, not its production techniques, tell the story and the result is a film that transcends its binary foundation.

    The decision to go digital was hardly an artistic one for the directors. While the film was cast with friends, Cumming and Leigh weren't interested in making an ugly low-budget film. Costs were the determining factor. As Cumming explained, the cost of the film reel for the one scene shot on celluloid (a one-minute underwater sequence shot where digital cameras dare not tread) cost more than the entire set of digital video tapes used for the 19-day shoot. Digital it would have to be. To ensure that their vision wouldn't waste away in the Museum of Ugly Cinema, they recruited the talented Mr. John Bailey, a veteran cinematographer and camera guru responsible for the look of such films as "Ordinary People" (1980), "My Blue Heaven" (1990), and perhaps most significantly for this project, "The Big Chill" (1983). The result is a camera that moves through the mingling party guests with ease and gives access to conversations in storage closets, on beds and poolside lounges that are intimate enough to make the viewer feel like a participant. The location of the set, an impressive modern-flavored glass-walled house, high in the lush Hollywood Hills is a big plus factor for the film's impressive look that should not go unmentioned. (Or unpaid for! In Q&A, Leigh and Cumming commented that renting the perfect house was one of the most expensive costs of making the film. There was even talk of the house getting paid overtime!)

    Not unlike a real cocktail party, "The Anniversary Party" takes a while to warm up. The all-star cast lives up to its very high potential, every character quickly becoming a player to watch, but the affair feels directionless for a while and the viewer is condemned as the third wheel overhearing party small talk and chit-chat. The interactions between party guests are not without their purpose, as they develop an intricate network around the two central characters, with some connections newly forged and some revealed as remnants of the past, all the while plotting out a broad system of facts about their lives together. Who is who to whom becomes a fun game to play and keep track of, but inevitably some guests are more fun to watch than others (a case in point is the still-sexy-after-all-these-years Jennifer Beals).

    After a few entertaining and darkly humorous rounds of foot-in-mouth with the neighbors and an overly-competitive game of charades, the guests settle in for a series of touching and sometimes awkward tribute speeches to the happy couple. In this sequence, the only improvised portion of the film, Kevin Kline's Cal performs a dance with his real-life daughter, tribute songs are performed, the underused Parker Posey's Judy drunkenly warns Sally about men, and a former gay lover of Joe's shyly reminisces in his embarrassing attempt at flattery. The big show-stopper comes from the most unlikely of sources, the heretofore space-filler Skye Davidson, whose gift to the couple is simply a bag "of love." The mysterious gift turns out to be Ecstasy for everyone! Joe suggests everyone do it tonight, and well, the party gets moving. In a refreshingly believable depiction of adult X reverie, people get loose, clothes comes off and sparks fly. People say things, people do things, people almost die, people almost come to blows. The pretense of any party face or diplomatic eggshell stepping that guests and hosts alike have been trying to maintain for the night fall like an unhinged costume mask and the truth held behind spreads fast and indiscriminate like water from an untended garden hose.

    In the final act, the emotional truth and the feelings that are laid bare by the protagonists are powerful and surprising, catching the audience off guard. Sally and Joe's climactic canyon scene is a lid-popping fit of raw meat and gnashing teeth that's been simmering all evening. The subsequent fallout and regrouping that takes place back at the house is difficult and not all of the guests still standing survive unscathed. The morning after can only be rough after such an affair. The bad news seems unending for a short while, but when the morning light finally finds Sally and Joe back in bed, heads together, their marriage has mostly gone unchanged, but the new knowledge they share between them keeps Sally awake and her eyes open still.

    JUNE 8, 2001

    Reader comments on The Anniversary Party:

  • Yeah, right   from Ernie Garner, Feb 21, 2002
  • The Anniversary Party   from Matissa Alexander, Jun 6, 2003
  • Metropolitan West Coast   from Hidari Nagle, Jul 31, 2003
  • Alive   from Mike, Oct 3, 2003
  • caring, hating, annoyed   from Michael, Dec 9, 2003
  • Post script   from Michael, Dec 9, 2003
  • Excellent ensemble   from BigAl_LBL, Sep 1, 2010
  • comment on the movie   from lisa merrick, Jan 6, 2012

  • Post a comment on "The Anniversary Party"