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'Anniversary Party'

Film turns ugly in a wonderful way

Friday, June 22, 2001

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

After six fitful years of marriage and separation, Joe and Sally are getting back together again and celebrating that fact, in a nice coincidence, on their wedding date. You are cordially invited to their "Anniversary Party" from hell -- with periodic ascensions to heaven.

    'Anniversary Party'

RATING: R for language, sexual themes and some nudity

PLAYERS: Alan Cumming, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Parker Posey, Kevin Kline, Phoebe Cates, Jennifer Beals, Gwyneth Paltrow, John C. Reilly

DIRECTORS: Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming

CRITIC'S CALL: 4 stars.


Heavenly is a good word for this extraordinarily good film, co-written and directed by actors Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, who also star as the once and future honeymooners -- famous actress and famous novelist in their famously fabulous Beverly Hills canyon domain.

Host and hostess are tasty characters, but their guests are even more delicious. Among the functional and dysfunctional couples: Sally's current Oscar-winning leading man (Kevin Kline) and his wife, her best friend (Phoebe Cates); Sally's angst-ridden director (John C. Reilly) and his neurotic wife (Jane Adams), who panics when separated from her newborn or her cell phone; and Sally and Joe's uptight neighbors (Mina Badie and Denis O'Hare) with whom a monumental feud is raging over the sins of each other's dogs.

Uncoupled but in need of coupling are Sally's violinist pal (Michael Panes), the spittin' image of Peter Sellers; Joe's wife-wannabe pal (Jennifer Beals); and worst of all -- from Sally's perspective -- the gorgeous young actress Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow), who has been cast for the lead role based on herself in Joe's novel! Sally is wildly angry about Skye's casting, her invitation (by Joe) to the party, and Joe's toadying to her on the phone. ("I quite agree -- the end of chapter six is not filmic, definitely not filmic.") Skye -- a Mia Farrow parody, intentional or not -- further infuriates fortyish Sally with such inept flattery as, "I'm so privileged to play this character based on you as a young woman."

The party as structural device is not new, of course, but it's tried-and-true. Some ideas and elements from "Boys in the Band," "The Big Chill" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" shine through. George and Martha's "Get the Guests" game turns into "Get the Hosts" here. Betty Davis' bumpy ride in "All About Eve" was smooth compared to Sally's flight tonight.

Writer-directors Leigh and Cumming get hosts and guests alike absolutely right all the way -- nowhere better than in a brilliant scene of the quintessential, overheated party activity that brings out one's true colors in the most embarrassing, revealing way: charades!

Everybody has such issues. Cumming -- looking a lot like Pee-wee Herman, with silly rubber bands in his tufted hair -- is terrific. So is fragile Leigh, losing her touch as a star, conflicted about having children. Their Ecstasy drug-and-confrontation hilltop scene is a powerful finale.

Actually, my favorite performer of the bunch is Kline ("I've got gravitas up the wazoo"), but it's really a perfect ensemble. These character portrayals -- down to the chicana cook, America -- are a rare scriptwriting achievement: perfectly lampooning the archetypes while painfully humanizing them as individuals. It was shot in 19 days (with Sony DSR-500 cameras) in a digital video format, quite adequate when projected on the big screen.

If this isn't a fluke -- if its stunning quality, realized by actors working in a new collegial way, can be repeated -- it will be cause for film-goers to celebrate and for conventional directors and writers to worry.

"Anniversary Party" is equally relentless social satire and emotional autopsy, local in its Hollywood milieu but, by extension, universal all-American. Ferociously funny and poignant, vicious and gentle, by turns -- a uniquely cinematic Symphony Pathetique.

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