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The Anniversary Party

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4

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Starring: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Alan Cumming
Director: Jennifer Jason Leigh
Rated: R
RunTime: 115 Minutes
Release Date: June 2001
Genres: Drama, Romance


*Also starring: John Benjamin Hickey, Denis O'Hare, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mina Badie, Phoebe Cates, Jennifer Beals, Kevin Kline, Lisa Kudrow, Parker Posey



Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

They say that Sir Winston Churchill and his wife Sarah slept in separate bedrooms, which would make any modern person assume that they were unhappy together. This could be true, but the Robert Altmanesque "The Anniversary Party," written, directed and acted by Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh, might give you pause. The premise of the movie, I think, is that loving another person is easier than being together with that individual. Yes. Love is difficult to find but living together is even more demanding. Look at the marriage rate in the U.S. and then examine the divorce rate. Despite the alleged unpopularity of matrimony, I believe about 90% of Americans get married at some time in their lives. Fifty percent of them, however, get divorced. The other fifty percent? Miserable, maybe. If my thinking about "The Anniversary Party" is correct, the way to get those divorce figures down is either to outlaw marriage (which would bring the divorce rate down to 0) or continue performing the services but have the couples live apart. What's wrong with banning marriage altogether if so many people are miserable? Probably that being single is worse. How does "The Anniversary Party" support my premise? Look at what's going down in this picture, which is sometimes emotionally wrenching, at other times challenging the viewer to think that these incredibly rich people should just shut up and enjoy their money.

The principal couple, the ones holding a party for their sixth anniversary, are Joe Thierrian (Alan Cumming) and Sally Therrian (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Joe made his money as a novelist and is about to direct a picture based on his latest piece of fiction. Sally is an accomplished actress but despite her good looks and athletic build is beginning to get long in the tooth, at least from the standpoint of what the movie audience demands of leading women. They had broken up five months before. Now they're together and have invited some friends, business associates, and neighbors to their Hollywood Hills home (architecturally designed virtually to erase the border between the interiors and the exteriors) to show all that they are really together this time around.

In like manner, the people who are invited to the house have erased the borders between their acting roles and their real selves because they are the actual friends of Cumming and Leigh. They are an ensemble of some of the big names in Hollywood today. Most striking in appearance is Gwyneth Paltrow as Skye Davidson, a woman in her early twenties who is being paid 4 million to act the role of the lead character who seems--at least to Sally--to be based quite closely on her and on her marriage. Sally is furious that her husband even invited the young star to the celebration, and Skye doesn't make things any better by telling Sally, "I've been watching you since I was 4 years old. I'm so thrilled to be playing you as a young woman." That Skye assures her that she was always a big fan of hers does not assuage the wound.

The film, which should remind viewers of Lawrence Kasdan's 1983 pic "The Big Chill"--a look at a group of former college-radical friends who have dropped back into society--is even more unstructured and devoid of anything resembling a tight narrative. While the slack might well turn off those who insist that the story's always the thing, the ensemble acting of this talented bunch and to an even great extent the chemistry among them which signals that these folks have known each other for a while makes "The Anniversary Party" an engaging, bitterly-humorous bit of eavesdropping into this long day's journey into night. While it's a stretch to think that real people can go through such drama at a single party, the credibility and the bon mots make watching this quite an enjoyable experience. Acting to type, Jane Adams out Parkers Parker Posey (who is also a guest though a toned-down one) as the group's most overt neurotic, gesturing wildly as she holds tightly to a cell phone with which she expects to hear from her baby sitter a few times each hour. The unborn come in for a drubbing as Sophia Gold (Phoebe Cates) reports "once you have children, you can't commit suicide since kids rob you of that option."

Others who take turns entertaining the guests at the party while entertaining us in the audience with their pithy sayings and emotional outbursts include Kevin Kline as Sophia's wife Cal, while John Benjamin Hickey is the guy a lot of us can relate to--an outsider, invited only because he's a neighbor, though his invite comes only as a way to stop him from suing over Joe and Sally's perpetually barking dog Otis.

What seems to be dividing critics so far is the use of digital video, which is not only cheaper but can give more of a cinema-verite look to the proceedings. To cite distinguished online critic Steve Rhodes of Internet Reviews, "John Bailey demonstrates that digital video can indeed look sharp, sumptuous and generally steady," while equally distinguished online critic Chuck Rudolph of Matinee Magazine disagrees: "Digital Video can only debase a movie to make it look like the barren home videos of birthday parties and weddings." My view? Looks fine to me, but at any rate I was more than sufficiently absorbed by the spiked dialogue of these poor little rich folks to worry about the sharpness of the photography.

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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