Jennifer Beals, Alan Cumming, Jennifer Jason

A very actor-centric look at some neurotic showbiz denizens coming apart at the seams during a drug-driven long day's journey into night, "The Anniversary Party" is well observed in many particulars but is too familiar in its basic trajectory to be fresh or compelling. This is more a curiosity item than a pic to trigger genuine enthusiasm, which spells modest B.O. when it opens domestically next month.

A very actor-centric look at some neurotic showbiz denizens coming apart at the seams during a drug-driven long day’s journey into night, “The Anniversary Party” is well observed in many particulars but is too familiar in its basic trajectory to be fresh or compelling. Fine Line release will attract some interest on the specialized circuit by virtue of the unusual pairing of thesps Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming as joint writer-directors, prominent thesps such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Kevin Kline appearing as approximate versions of themselves and some very good digital video shooting by John Bailey. All the same, this is more a curiosity item than a pic to trigger genuine enthusiasm, which spells modest B.O. when it opens domestically next month.

Script adheres strictly to the format used in innumerable legit dramas over the decades in which the characters bare their innermost secrets — if not their souls — in the course of an increasingly uninhibited and confrontational social occasion. Traditionally, heavy booze intake has been the key to popping everyone’s skeletons out of their closets; here, it’s the drug ecstasy that loosens everyone up and puts them in a confessional mode.

Eponymous bash marks the sixth wedding anniversary of the oddly matched couple of successful Scottish novelist Joe Therrian (Cumming) and Yank movie actress Sally (Leigh). Event is notable in that it brings them back together after a year’s separation caused by some initially unspecified naughtiness on Joe’s part, and also sees them agreeing to try to have a kid. To help them celebrate, they’ve invited a bunch of friends to their see-through Richard Neutra-designed home in the Hollywood Hills for an opened-ended celebration fraught with any number of troubling subcurrents.

For starters, there’s the local dog wars the Therrians have been having, which they hope to ameliorate by inviting their straight-laced non-industry neighbors, Monica and Ryan Rose (Mina Badie and Denis O’Hare). Mac Forsyth (John C. Reilly) can’t pretend that he’s entirely happy with the current film in which he’s directing Sally, while Mac’s emaciated wife Clair (Jane Adams) is like an exposed nerve ending, overwrought about the baby she’s recently had but has chosen to ignore all day. Sally’s co-star in Mac’s film, Cal Gold (Kline), arrives with his two kids and wife Sophia (real-life wife Phoebe Cates), a former thesp who, unlike all the neurotics at the party, is the picture of mental and physical health and happily gave up acting to raise her children. Also seeming relatively stable are Jerry and Judy Adams (John Benjamin Hickey and Parker Posey), the Therrians’ business managers.

Two female guests cause Sally a goodly measure of angst. Lovely Gina (Jennifer Beals), a successful photographer, was the first important woman in Joe’s life and remains a little too present for Sally’s taste. But much more aggravating is Skye Davidson (Paltrow), a glamorous superstar who has just signed to play the leading role in the film Joe will direct from his own acclaimed novel, a role based on Sally that Sally thinks should have been hers.

Much of the early going is handled in breezy fashion, even if the not particularly witty dialogue is much concerned with such matters as canines, kids and work. The movie folk are accurately, but hardly originally, portrayed as self-involved, insecure, thin-skinned people in need of constant flattery and reassurance.

A round of charades is followed by an embarrassing interlude in which everyone has to get up to toast the host couple. Among the revelations here is that their marital separation was caused by Joe’s fling with a young man who, unaccountably, is present at the party. Taking the edge off of this little tidbit, however, is Skye’s wedding present — ecstasy for everyone, which has the effect of truth serum. Sophia warns Sally — rightly, it would seem — that the childishly narcissistic, sexually ambivalent Joe won’t make a good father, that he’ll probably have an affair with Skye during filming, and that she’d be much better off not having kids.

In the course of things, Sally is also bluntly told that, just because the role in Joe’s picture is based on her doesn’t mean she should play it — after all, the part is for a woman 10 years younger than she is now. In a lighter vein, Kline drolly sends up leading-man vanity when his Cal casually informs Joe that he might be available for the part of a 28-year-old man in the same picture.

Someone leaves the gate open, prompting a nocturnal search through the hills; Joe, who’s fooling around with a female guest in full view of Sally, suddenly gets some tragic news from abroad; and Joe and Sally finally get down to some very nasty, “Virginia Woolf”-type emotional leveling that leaves very little more to be said.

All this “truth” is more than some of the characters can handle, at least in one evening. But Sally seems incapable of admitting what seems obvious on the face of it — that Joe tilts pretty heavily in the homo, rather than hetero, direction; after all, how many straight men would run around in little pigtails wearing a Boy of London T-shirt?

With the exception of the pretty together Gina and Sophia, none of the characters is particularly admirable or sympathetic. But all the roles are in good hands, and it’s mildly amusing in a voyeuristic way to watch the likes of Paltrow behave as we might imagine stars do at a party, basking in attention, carrying on and having sex whenever they want to — in her case with a musician (played by Michael Panes) who, as she accurately points out, looks so much like Peter Sellers.

Although the digital video imprint is still evident, ace vet lenser John Bailey has gone a long way toward making this look like a celluloid-shot picture, most successfully in the bright, daytime scenes, less so at night or under low lighting conditions, where the images sometimes appear washed out.

The Anniversary Party

Production

A Fine Line Features release of a Joanne Sellar/Pas de Quoi production. (International sales: New Line Intl., London.) Produced by Sellar, Alan Cumming, Jennifer Jason Leigh. Executive producer, Andrew Hurwitz. Co-producer, Mike Nelson. Directed, written by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Alan Cumming.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, digital video-to-35mm), John Bailey; editors, Carol Littleton, Suzanne Spangler; music, Michael Penn; music supervisor, Robin Urdang; set decorator, Emma Fairley; costume designer, Christopher Lawrence; sound (Dolby Digital), David R.B. Macmillan; supervising sound editor, James Lay; associate producer, Lila Yacoub; assistant director, William Paul Clark. Reviewed at New Line screening room, L.A., May 1, 2001. (In Cannes Film Festival -- Un Certain Regard.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 115 MIN.

With

Joe Therrian - Alan Cumming Sally Therrian - Jennifer Jason Leigh Clair Forsyth - Jane Adams Monica Rose - Mina Badie Gina Taylor - Jennifer Beals Sophia Gold - Phoebe Cates Jerry Adams - John Benjamin Hickey Cal Gold - Kevin Kline Ryan Rose - Denis O'Hare Skye Davidson - Gwyneth Paltrow Levi Panes - Michael Panes Judy Adams - Parker Posey Mac Forsyth - John C. Reilly

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