"The Anniversary Party"

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming write, direct and star in a riveting, caffeinating study of marriage.

Published June 8, 2001 5:32PM (EDT)

"The Anniversary Party" is something of a sprawl, a movie that rumbles on about 20 minutes longer than it should and clutters its windup with too many climactic moments -- in a modest picture like this, just one would do.

And yet it keeps you riveted. "The Anniversary Party," written and directed by two actors, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, who also star, is a sterling example of the right way to go about a vanity project. Leigh and Cumming wrote the movie for their friends to star in; it was shot in 19 days using digital video cameras. Yet save for the flaws already mentioned, "The Anniversary Party" rarely feels self-conscious or draggy.

Cumming is the versatile character actor who most recently starred in "Spy Kids" and "Josie and the Pussycats"; he also played the mincing desk clerk in "Eyes Wide Shut." Leigh, an earthy and often mesmerizing actress, has starred in a wide range of independent and commercial features alike, from "Last Exit to Brooklyn" to "Dolores Claiborne," since she made her first big splash in Cameron Crowe's 1982 "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." She also recently appeared in the Dogma picture "The King Is Alive"; working on that movie opened her up to the potential of digital video.

"The Anniversary Party" was clearly conceived to be an actor's movie, an opportunity for Leigh and Cumming's circle of friends to stretch out, dig in and show what they can do, and every performer rises to the occasion. The picture has the relaxed feel of an actors' exercise, but one that's interesting every moment. There are slack patches in the writing here and there, but the players whisk you through them so artfully that you barely notice them. It's rare to see an ensemble so consistently on the money: Even when they aren't doing much, they're a joy to watch.

Cumming plays a British novelist with a few hits under his belt; he's about to take a shot at directing his first movie. Leigh is his wife, a high-strung but respected film actress. The couple have just reconciled after a yearlong separation, and they've decided to celebrate their sixth anniversary with a party at their glamorously austere Los Angeles home; they're also trying to conceive a child.

That simple premise sets the stage for the latent conflicts between Cumming and Leigh to rush to the surface. It also allows for the gradual unfurling of the multitentacled relationships each of them has with the guests at the party -- many of them other couples. One couple, Parker Posey and John Benjamin Hickey, are the pair's tense business managers, overtly anxious about Cumming and Leigh's shaky finances and subconsciously anxious about their own wobbly marriage.

John C. Reilly is a successful, respected film director -- Leigh is starring in his latest movie and, it appears, simply phoning in the performance, much to his frustration. Reilly's wife, Jane Adams, is a nervous, birdlike actress who has just given birth to the couple's first child and is trying to keep her career going nonetheless. Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates play married actors who are also busy raising a family; Kline is still working (starring opposite Leigh in Reilly's film), but Cates, who is Leigh's best friend, has retired from acting to raise the couple's two children.

The other party guests include Gwyneth Paltrow, a big star who has agreed to star in Cumming's movie, which is a grand coup for him; Denis O'Hare and Mina Badie as the couple's meddling, lawsuit-happy neighbors; Jennifer Beals as an old friend of Cumming's of whom Leigh is bitterly jealous; and Michael Panes as one of the couple's random pals, a gifted violinist and self-acknowledged Peter Sellers look-alike. (He plays up the resemblance with squared-off, horn-rimmed glasses.)

If there were a special camera that could pick up the auras of fragile egos and rampant worries, the air in "The Anniversary Party" would be ablaze with chrysanthemums of light. As it is, the movie fairly vibrates with anxiety, but the actors catch the audience up in it instead of leaving us on the outside looking in. I can't recall the last time a picture left me feeling so caffeinated.

You can't always trust good actors -- as both Leigh and Cumming have proved they are -- to be good directors or good writers. The pair give solid performances here, but their best moments are the small ones, the bitter or affectionate glances that pass between them, rather than their hyperrevelatory blowouts.

But even more significant than their performances is their generosity toward their colleagues, which shines through clearly. Leigh and Cumming say they wrote the characters' parts with their friends' specific strengths in mind, and their judgment feels sound. The picture has an improvisational feel, suggesting that the actors relaxed completely into their roles.

Because nearly every performance is so nicely shaped, and meshes so beautifully into the whole, it almost seems unfair to single out particular actors. I've never seen Reilly ("Magnolia," "Boogie Nights") give a bad performance, and his work here is typical: His character barely says a word about the stress of being both a new dad and a conscientious filmmaker -- the set of his brow alone signifies how tense he is. As his wife, Adams is a skinny, fluttery bird who's lost in space half the time. But when one of the party guests produces a packet of ecstasy pills, she pops one eagerly and transmutes into a dreamy, relaxed water nymph who rules like the White Rock Fairy over Leigh and Cumming's night-lit pool.

Badie, as the litigious neighbor, has some lovely moments. It turns out that her husband is a hothead, and she's genuinely concerned not just about making amends with the folks next door but about actually connecting with them. Over the course of the picture, her bookish reserve gives way to a gently blossoming openness. Badie has appeared in small roles in "Georgia" and "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," but she's the kind of refined, perceptive, decidedly unflashy actress I wish I could see more of.

And Cates, who has been marvelous in pictures like "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," the highly entertaining and grossly underappreciated "Gremlins 2: The New Batch" and little-known gem "Princess Caraboo," is so natural and funny here that it makes me mournful she doesn't work more often. Her character walks a fine line between being one of those persnickety, judgmental mom types and a rough-and-tumble straight talker, and her timing is pitch perfect. One minute she's looking askance at Adams, speculating with disapproval that she's probably not breast-feeding. The next minute she's urgently pressing childbirth advice on Leigh, her brown eyes opened impossibly wide, as if she were a spy divulging a state secret: "Don't let them talk you into that Lamaze bullshit. Get the epidural! There's no reason for that kind of pain!" (It's intriguing, and probably intentional, that 20 years after "Fast Times," Cates is still acting as Leigh's mentor in everything having to do with relationships.)

One of the most significant triumphs of "The Anniversary Party" is its luminous appearance, proof that digital video can look terrific if the people wielding the equipment know how to use it. Cinematographer John Bailey (whose recent credits include gorgeous-looking films like Paul Schrader's "Forever Mine" and Richard LaGravenese's "Living Out Loud") has a knack for turning digital video's limitations into assets. If the grainy imprecision of digital video images has ever bothered you, you need to see the creamy texture that Bailey achieves here.

No matter how engaging "The Anniversary Party" is, there are bound to be some people who think it's self-indulgent for two actors to concoct a movie in which many of their actor friends can come in and play -- what else? -- actors. Where's the art in that, you might ask?

But even though many of the characters in the film don't have the same kinds of jobs that you and I do, they make us believe that their anxieties and problems are just as real as ours. These aren't glamorous creatures who sashay about in Manolo Blahniks all the time; they're people who have to work for a living, and who sometimes don't know where their next meal is coming from. "The Anniversary Party" is a picture about the fragility of friendships and marital relationships, but it's also a starkly cut little window into the inner world of actors. After all, actors are people too. That's easy to forget when they're so often busy playing us, instead of themselves.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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