Both Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming have proven themselves to consummate actors even sometimes their taste in projects (Josie and the Pussycats or A Thousand Acres, anyone?) can be questioned. But, as the old Hollywood cliché goes it seems what they've really wanted to do is direct (and act, produce, cater, etc.). If Leigh and Cumming's directorial debut The Anniversary Party is any consideration, maybe they should have been working behind the camera all along. Topping it off, their writing is the real find as Party, with all of its minor flaws, boasts one of the best scripts of the year.
Leigh and Cumming play acclaimed actress Sally and respected author Joe, a long married couple back together after a little over six months of separation. To celebrate their anniversary, they've invited a plethora of friends to help them commemorate the occasion. Amongst them are fellow actor Cal (Kevin Kline) and his former actress wife Sophia (Phoebe Cates), Sally's current director Mac (John C. Reilly) and his actress wife Claire (Jane Adams), Joe's photographer friend Gina (Jennifer Beals) and the couples lawyer Jerry (John Benjamin Hickey) with his wife Judy (Parker Posey).
Also invited are the duos neighbors, struggling author Ryan Rose (Denis O'Hare) and his wife Monica (Mina Badie) who are at odds with the couple's dog, and young "it-girl" actress Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow) who's meeting Joe for the first time and is playing the lead role in an adaptation of one of his popular novels, the subsequent film Joe is in fact directing. Neither of these invitees sit well with his wife, especially the present of Skye who's playing a role Sally is convinced should be hers.
The whole thing has the strong aura of appearing to be a Big Chill or Peter's Friend retread, and there are times when it does fall into that trap. Yet, many of the moments in the picture have a strong presence of their own, and when everyone in the cast takes ecstasy half way through Party takes on a strong dramatic relevance all its own. Under the influence, truths and lies merge as hidden emotions come bubbling to the surface.
Leigh and Cumming's screenplay is a revelation. Much like an exquisitely scripted play, which this film could easily have been, the dialogue is in expert tune with the ensuing action. While it is obvious that Leigh and Cumming are still honing their skills as directors, the films few missteps are all ones of timing, pacing and style, their script is absolutely first rate and one of the year's real finds.
The performers in the movie are all uniformly excellent. Special praise must be given to Paltrow, who shows a sublime willingness to lay waste to her own screen persona, and Badie who shines in one of the films most touching scenes, an emotionally resonant sequence where the painful love for her husband is heartbreakingly real. The real standout, though, is Cates. Powerful, understated, flippant and wise the actress steals every scene she's in and her monologue in regards to having children is especially sonorous when taken in context of the actress's own career choices. (Side note - it is her and Kline's real children who play their offspring in the film.)
One can't help but think that The Anniversary Party does not cover any new ground, but as accomplished as the whole enterprise is who says it has to? Leigh and Cumming prove to be adept writers and, like many actors-turned-directors, are excellent at eliciting fine performances from their fellow thespians. Shot on Digital Video, the movie has a crisp immediacy that wisps it along nicely from scene to scene allowing for a strong emotional pitch that permeates the whole production. All in all, this is a party well worth being a part of.
Also be sure and read her first-hand account of the US premiere of The Anniversary Party at the Seattle International Film Festival.