[box cover]

The Anniversary Party

New Line Home Entertainment

Starring Alan Cumming, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kevin Kline,
Phoebe Cates, Gwyneth Paltrow, John C. Reilly,
Denis O'Hare, Mina Badie, Parker Posey,
Jennifer Beals, John Benjamin Hickey, Matt Malloy,
and Michael Panes

Written and directed by Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh

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Review by Mark Bourne                   

The rich are different from you and me, Fitzgerald said. It's through The Anniversary Party that the directing-writing-acting team of Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who should know, tell us that the rich — movie stars in this case — are in fact quite a bit like us, only more so. And Gatsby-like, someone's bound to end up fucked up near the swimming pool.

By turns successfully comic, trenchant, and transparently labored, The Anniversary Party became one of 2001's more accessible art-house films. It's a peel-back-the-layers look at Hollywood elite that can be unflattering to its subjects at the same time it brings them down to earth with affection and care that's rare for a Hollywood film. The Anniversary Party achieves a relaxed intimacy that's refreshing in an American movie, yet that factor also contributed to some of the film's harsher reviews. What The New York Times called "easily the most incisive and realistic comedy of manners to emerge from Hollywood in quite a while," the Village Voice dubbed "an exercise in what it critiques — the self-involvement and self-dramatization of performers."

*          *          *

Joe and Sally (Cumming and Leigh, who also co-wrote and co-directed) are a married Hollywood couple putting their troubled relationship back together after a year-long separation complete with security-busting infidelities and emotional estrangement. They have reconciled and, though they're still working on things, are happy to be back in each other's lives. The occasion is their sixth wedding anniversary. They've invited their closest friends (plus some abrasively not-so-close others) to their glass house in the Hollywood Hills for a night of celebrating their renewal. Joe is a novelist who will soon be directing his first movie. He's also a wandering man-child who walked out of their marriage to indulge in a life of recreational drugs and less emotionally difficult relationships with both sexes. Sally is an actress who can't face the fact that she is no longer the young and beautiful starlet she was twenty years ago. That power position now belongs to Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow), whom Joe has cast in the role that Sally expected to play in his movie.

Joe and Sally's best friends are Cal and Sophia Gold (real-life couple Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates). Cal is a Hollywood A-list star, a life Sophia gave up to raise their two children (played here by their real-life kids). Sally's current director, Mac (the always welcome John C. Reilly), arrives with his bundle-of-nerves actress wife, Claire (Jane Adams), a new mother who's as fluttery as a bird on NoDoze. The hostile neighbors are Ryan (Denis O'Hare), the very model of stick-up-his-ass rectitude, and his wife Monica (Mina Badie), who willingly sheds some innocence when mellowing out away from her husband's starched glowering. Also on hand are Parker Posey, Jennifer Beals, John Benjamin Hickey, Matt Malloy, and newcomer Michael Panes (who is the spitting image of Peter Sellers and plays it up with a spiffy impression of Sellers from The Party).

As drinks are poured and toasts are made, personal layers peel away. Beneath their renewed-relationship gloss, Joe and Sally aren't the most likable people. Each is in some way a spoiled brat, and each must grow up or else this anniversary party will likely be their last. Predictably, events occur and things are said to force that very issue. After Skye gifts our happy couple with a party-pack of ecstasy tablets, the rest of the movie is devoted to characters who soon stand naked, literally or figuratively, before others. Realistically portraying ecstasy as a drug that strips away inhibitions and personal barriers, the script's second hour unspools as secrets are revealed and relationships are examined. For some, insecurities and latent conflicts come to the surface. For others, the drug allows them to breach barriers and come closer together.

*          *          *

It could have been disastrous. But because The Anniversary Party's cast is a relaxed ensemble of personal friends who are often first-class at what they do, and because Cumming and Leigh avoid most (though not all) of the easy choices common to first-time writers and directors, the movie stays on the right side of entertaining. Fortunately it doesn't (quite) stumble into becoming a mawkish knock-off of The Big Chill.

What story The Anniversary Party has doesn't so much unfold as sprawl, and it makes a near-fatal misstep at the start of its second hour — it's a cheat to use the ecstasy as a means of disabling the characters' force fields. The best moments are the close, intimate ones when two people are either coming together or pushing apart, or both in the case of Sally and Joe. There are some fine funny moments here (Panes particularly is a treat), and others that dig into the uglier loam beneath a character's surface. Some scenes could use a more subtle touch, while others would benefit from greater assertiveness. Even when the material slides into triteness after the ecstasy arrives, and the whole thing's focus goes a bit blurry, the two co-directors maintain control over what they've crafted, warts and blurs and all.

Cumming and Leigh wrote the script via back-and-forth email, and while sitting at Leigh's kitchen table in Los Angeles. Close friends since they worked together Off-Broadway in the Roundabout Theater's acclaimed revival of Cabaret, they found time between work schedules to improvise scenes, role-play characters, and mine their own lives as well as the experiences of their friends, who just happen to include Kevin Kline, Phoebe Cates, Gwyneth Paltrow, John C. Reilly, and other familiar screen presences. The main roles were written specifically to the strengths of their actors, whose warm offscreen relationships with their directors/screenwriters granted them permission to relax and simply enjoy the doing of it.

Leigh delivers Sally as a borderline neurotic, a woman genuinely loving yet in denial, who must understand soon that she's no longer as young as she, or Hollywood, would like her to be. She has told Joe that she wants to have children, though whether it's for worthy reasons is an open question. Cumming makes Joe a mercurial man-pixie who up until now has refused to solidify his life professionally, personally, or even sexually. He has been as cavalier and careless with friends and family as a teenager, a trait that threatens to unravel every important thread of his life and adds extra pain to a death that occurs during the proceedings.

Of the supporting cast, Kevin Kline plays so close to type that it's hard to imagine he isn't exactly like Cal in real life. He's solid and appealing but unsurprising, and his interactions with Cates and their children are authentic without winking at the audience. The impressive new player here is Mina Badie. She displays such an appealing look and range that it's a wonder she's not on our screens, big or small, with greater frequency. More roundly talented than often given credit for, Gwyneth Paltrow pokes at her "type" as the latest Hot Young Thing who's still something of a twinkie — beautiful and bankable but with little more depth than the page her characters are printed on. In other words, someone who embodies what so many people would like to believe Paltrow is actually like. Paltrow plays on this image without descending to self-parody.

And that rings true from performance to performance here. It's a mistake to dismiss, as some did, The Anniversary Party because it's a bunch of actors playing actors, therefore "playing themselves." Paltrow is no twinkie, and the rest of the cast is likewise as fine a group of working pros as a new director could hope for. Their performances are informed by their own experiences and by the knowing input of the screenwriters, so where there's a false note it tends to squeeze out from the script or the directing.

The Anniversary Party doesn't pretend to be deeper than it is and its characters don't spend the evening playing up their golden positions in our society. It presents them as ordinary folks who happen to have the jobs and party guests the rest of us only dream of. Nor is it a rehash of Hollywood Wives or a Melrose Place melodrama. The Anniversary Party is a modest, observant study of relationships in flux under the pressures of Hollywood's most potent forces — insecurity and ego-strength.

However, because we have two actors writing and directing themselves, and because the script delivers no universal truisms that we don't already know — relationships are fragile and fraught with connection and isolation, Hollywood stars have problems too, real-life married couple Kline and Cates have cute kids — The Anniversary Party is vulnerable to being seen as merely a narcissistic exercise in tiresome self-absorption. This movie does teeter on that edge, coming one cocaine snort away from plummeting over. But that take on Cumming and Leigh's work is too easy, and it misses the point. This is a movie about self-absorption, about how some people grow past it and others don't. So Cumming and Leigh wrote The Anniversary Party for and cast it with a half-dozen close friends who just happen to be among the Hollywood A-list. Then they are guilty only of employing that writers workshop dictum, "Write what you know."

That they are first-time screenwriters and directors, well, that's clear too, especially in the second half. But they are also studious professionals with first-hand experience with their subject matter, and their successes here outweigh any missteps.

The digital video

What made The Anniversary Party a standout in terms of technical accomplishment is the fact that it was shot almost entirely on digital video cameras. Though one of a handful of films in 2001 that employed this innovation, The Anniversary Party was recognized as perhaps the clearest proof of concept.

As explained in this disc's commentary audio track with Leigh and Cumming, digital video cameras (specifically three Sony DSR-500s) allowed a budget that was pocket change by Hollywood standards. The few seconds of filmed underwater footage cost more than the entire video stock for the rest of the movie. Going digital also meant that they could shoot 40 hours of usable footage in a mere 19-day schedule, with the freedom to move the cameras close to the actors without intrusive lighting equipment or bulky camera dollies. Tapes needed to be changed only once every hour, so scenes could be shot in long continuous takes that gave greater freedom to the editor as well as the actors. The camerawork was headed up by veteran cinematographer John Bailey, who kept both eyes open for clean and fluid use of this emerging strategy.

DV as seen here yields good-looking results, but it does not look like filmstock. Although the master print was treated to look more like film, there's a subtle glassiness here that, while not distracting, requires some getting used to. In one scene table lamps "bloom" a bit too much and there's an outdoor night scene that's obviously lit from artificial sources nearby. The upside is that DV allowed Leigh and Cumming to deliver an immediacy and intimacy that a conventional film shoot would have hindered. The Anniversary Party sinks or swims largely on a fly-on-the-wall realism, and DV gave these first-time directors a greater chance at achieving it than more traditional, and costly, methods would have.

This DVD

So here's New Line Home Entertainment's DVD release of The Anniversary Party, and through this medium the movie will probably find more of an audience than it did during its limited theatrical run. What makes this DVD extra appealing is the tutorial it gives to filmmakers or curious viewers who have an interest in digital video as more than a means to send the kid's birthday party to grandma in Des Moines.

First of all, given the aforementioned DVD blooming and other source distinctions, this 1.85:1 (OAR) anamorphic image is as sharp and solid as anyone could ask for. Colors are true and definition is fine. The transfer is free from blemishes or artifacting.

The audio is likewise strong and clear throughout. It's presented with Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Stereo options. Neither presents anything to complain about, and of course the 5.1 is a fuller experience that doesn't attempt to do more than what's purposeful for such a small movie that doesn't have a single explosion or bullet whizzing by.

Throughout the audio commentary by Cummings and Leigh, these two veteran performers are active and engaging. Thankfully, neither is "performing" as if in front of a two-drink-minimum audience. They waste no time getting to the meat of the discussion, and avoid jokey frippery or a don't-give-a-damn attitude (annoyances way too common on these things lately). Their scene-by-scene annotations on the actors, their experiences writing and directing, production details, and how they used DV are incisive and insightful.

Anatomy of a Scene is a 20-minute documentary originally produced for the Sundance Channel. Interviewees on hand are Leigh, Cumming, editor Carol Littleton, and cinematographer John Bailey. Focus is on the directing, camerawork, and editing, with the scene dissected being the one where the party guests propose their toasts to Sally and Joe. This supplement is well produced and informative, especially for filmmakers interested in seeing the Sony DSR-500 at work, but neither is it flashy nor exceptionally well preserved.

The theatrical trailer is, of course, here too. Looks good, sounds good.

Cast filmographies arrive via click-through screens that, thoughtfully, also list stage and other work as appropriate.

DVD-ROM exclusives include a nifty screenplay viewer that allows you to read the screenplay as you watch the film scene by scene, and Web links to the film's official site and New Line's "Hot Spot" portal.

—Mark Bourne

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