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ANNIVERSARY PARTY, THE(director/writer: Alan Cumming/Jennifer Jason Leigh; cinematographer: John Bailey; editor: Carol Littleton; cast: Alan Cumming (Joe Therrian), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Sally Nash Therrian), Jane Adams (Clair Forsyth), Kevin Kline (Cal Gold), Phoebe Cates (Sophia Gold), Gwyneth Paltrow (Skye Davidson), Jennifer Beals (Gina Taylor), John C. Reilly (Mac Forsyth), Parker Posey (Judy Adams), John Benjamin Hickey (Jerry Adams), Denis O’Hare (Ryan Rose), Mina Badie (Monica Rose), Michael Panes (Levi Panes), Matt Malloy (Sanford Jewison), Owen Kline (Jack Gold), Greta Kline (Evie Gold), Karen Kilgariff (Karen); Runtime: 113; Fine Line Features; 2001)

“A caustic but refreshing look at how some intelligence can be scripted into a Hollywood ensemble film if some effort is applied.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An indie film that is a satire on the Tinseltown crowd, inspired by Dogma 95 filming techniques and filmed on digital video. It is written and directed and starred in by Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh. This is their first feature in this capacity, as they created the parts for themselves and their Hollywood friends, in this keenly observant ensemble piece that is short on drama but long on finding out the truth about character (it plays as a ‘Know Thyself’ search). It’s about a showbiz couple who have lived together in a stormy marital relationship for the last six years and have reconciled after a one year separation, and are now throwing a dusk-to-dawn anniversary party in their swank Beverly Hills home and have invited over their close showbiz friends.

Joe (Cumming) is a transplanted Britisher living in Hollywood. His best-selling novel about a troubled actress who is much like his wife was when she was in her 20s, is being made into a film with him as the director. His 30-something actress wife, Sally (Leigh), is disappointed that she’s not playing the lead, that instead it is given to the rising star in her 20’s the attractive Skye Davidson (Paltrow). And, to make her angrier, even though Skye is not a friend she’s invited to the party by him. Joe, in a nasty manner, tells Sally that the story is fiction and it’s about a compilation of all the women he has known, and that he didn’t give her the part because she’s too old. She retorts that he still hasn’t grown up, is untrustworthy and has a dangerous fondness for party drugs.

The other guests include Jerry (Hickey) and Judy Adams (Posey), her ‘wannabe hip’ business manager and his airhead wife; Cal and Sophia Gold and their two children (played by real-life marrieds Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates and their children Owen and Greta), the former a co-star of Sally’s in her latest pic and the latter her best friend who has given up showbiz to raise a family; Mac (John C. Reilly), the director of the new comedy film she’s in, and Mac’s actress wife Clair (Jane Adams), who is stressed-out but has continued working after the recent birth of their child; Sally and Joe’s longtime confidant, the eccentric musician who resembles Peter Sellers, Levi Panes (Michael Panes); and, Gina (Jennifer Beals), Joe’s sexy photographer ex-girlfriend who was probably his first love. Also invited, are the uptight next-door neighbors, the writer who has been sober for years after his alcohol addiction, Ryan (O’Hare), and his starry-eyed interior decorator wife Monica Rose (O’Hare and Badie), as a ploy by their business manager so that they won’t be sued because of their barking dog who has been recorded on tape by them when he barks for a long period of time while Ryan is working.

The nature of Joe’s sex is ambivalent, as he has had both a male lover at Oxford and a female lover while living in London last year. He’s a playful man-child, sporting an awkward puckish grin and given to varying moods of childish flightiness and fierce verbal retorts when reality sets in. He’s gotten back with Sally after his last affair, and thought that if they could have a child it would make them more like a nuclear family to go with their pampered dog Otis.

Sally is currently shooting a comedy directed by Mac but she has him and costar Cal disappointed by her glum performance, which doesn’t fit with the film’s comedy. Her best friend is Cal’s wife Sophia, who in one startling scene poisons her mind about Joe and warns her not to raise a family. The two lie casually on the floor and intensely explore what it is they really feel that is happening to them.

During the course of the party, which will invite all to reveal their inner nature and doubts, the guests do the following: propose eloquent toasts to the couple and give them gifts that bring out different emotions in them; play a nasty game of charades; take the Ecstasy party drug; go for a midnight nude swim; incessantly gossip; and, find different companions to make love to.

Those taking the drug become even more self-absorbed than they usually are, and since they are actors they are not quite sure if they are playing a role or if this is for real.

The film was scripted, but it appears as if it’s largely improv.

The ostentatious show-and-tell Hollywood house and pool the showbiz types party in is clevely juxtaposed against their personal insecurities and bravado over their acting jobs. The film is not formulaic, and has the advantage of being acted by those who live these same parts everyday of their life. But as good as this film was in bringing out that Hollywood search for a personal identity and giving the actors juicy lines to say while fully developing their character, I still lost interest in their story and was not overly moved by their situations. It is, nevertheless, a caustic but refreshing look at how some intelligence can be scripted into a Hollywood ensemble film if some effort is applied.

REVIEWED ON 1/31/2002 GRADE: B –

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”