Eric D. Snider

The Anniversary Party

"The Anniversary Party" is a marvelous achievement in that it was shot on digital video, which is normally a hard sell for major motion pictures ("Blair Witch" notwithstanding).

That format was a smart move on the part of Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who co-wrote, co-directed and co-star in the film. The setting is an anniversary party attended by Hollywood celebrities and other California bigshots; the digital video makes it look like a home movie, like we're there mingling with the elite, seeing them as they really are.

It's no surprise that "as they really are" means they're narcissistic and crazy. Joe (Cumming) is an author who is about to direct the film adaptation of his latest novel. In the lead role, he has starlet Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow), which infuriates his wife Sally (Leigh), herself a former starlet. She feels she should play the part -- especially since the character seems to have been based on her anyway.

Joe and Sally have been on the rocks for quite a while, but things are good today, the day of their anniversary party. Skye has been invited, though, which doesn't make Sally happy, and the non-famous neighbors are present, too, complaining about Joe's barking dog.

And then the celebrities arrive. There's the great actor Cal Gold (Kevin Kline), who is current shooting a film in which Sally is his trainwreck of a co-star. The director of that movie is Mac Forsyth (John C. Reilly), whose waifish wife Clair (Jane Adams) is a bundle of nerves because she's left the new baby home with a sitter for the first time. Judy (Parker Posey) and Jerry (John Benjamin Hickey) are there, and Jerry establishes himself as a real Nazi when it comes to following the rules of Charades. (Why Cumming and Leigh saw fit to include such a lengthy Charades scene is beyond me.)

There are unattached friends, too. Joe has an old girlfriend Gina Taylor (Jennifer Beals), who is a photographer; Sally has Levi Panes (Michael Panes), an amusing, self-aware nobody.

For a long time, "The Anniversary Party" is nothing more than a bunch of self-centered people sitting around talking. If you have friends who are involved in theater, you'll know the bunch: They're melodramatic, and they make a big deal out of everything.

It's a self-centered film, too. It's indulgent and cutesy, and often assumes we care about it even when we've been given little reason to.

Halfway through, things get interesting. The characters all take Ecstasy ("You're the only person ever to take Ecstasy and become angrier," Joe yells as Sally), and then start to become victims of their own selfishness. Legitimate crises -- not just "Oh, no, we're out of caviar" stuff -- arise, and these glamorous airheads are forced to deal with them.

Cumming and Leigh give fine performances and genuinely seem to enjoy themselves. You get the feeling they really did just call up their friends and ask them to appear in their movie. I don't know how long it took to film, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was only two or three days. Not that it looks rushed or sloppy; just that it looks spontaneous and casual. Its excellent cast is better than the overall product, but it's an entertaining party nonetheless.

Grade: B-

Rated R, frequent harsh profanity, abundant nudity,

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