The Anniversary Party is one of those actors-playing-actors movies, an ensemble film that, in its modest way, wants to show us what it's like for Hollywood stars when all the cameras are turned off. Apparently, it's awful, though perhaps no more awful than it is for the rest of us. We, too, worry about getting older and losing our looks, about holding on to our spouses, about balancing our public and private lives. The difference is that actors 'act out' their anxieties. They emote. God, do they emote. The actors (and writers and directors) who've gathered at the home of Jack (Alan Cumming) and Sally (Jennifer Jason Leigh) Therrian, high in the Hollywood Hills section of Los Angeles, have brought all their neuroses with them. It's a come-as-you-are party for people who are much more comfortable playing someone else. And so, to quote Bette Davis in All About Eve, 'Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night.'
When the movie opens, Jack and Sally are being led through their yoga exercises by their very own instructor while their Latina maids ' why settle for one when you can afford two? ' push their way past to start setting up tonight's party. It's Jack and Sally's sixth anniversary, if you count the year they were separated, which was a mere five months ago. And you realize early on that there's an element of hopeful desperation to the party; they're trying to will themselves into happily ever after. The guests arrive early and often, a collection of Hollywood types, not to mention stereotypes. There's the award-winning actor for whom the merest 'Hello' is a performance (Kevin Kline) and his I'm-so-together-I'm-falling-apart wife (Phoebe Cates). There's the director of Sally's latest movie (John C. Reilly) and his hyperventilating wife (Jane Adams). And there's the young and beautiful Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow).
Whom Sally refers to as Skye 'Fucking' Davidson. An Eve Harrington-ish ingenue, Skye will be starring in Jack's debut as a director, the movie based on his own novel, which in turn was based on the young and beautiful Sally. But that's only one of the things eating away at Sally, who's a veritable smorgasbord of pain. There's also Jack's former girlfriend, Gina (Jennifer Beals), who periodically needs to be reminded that Jack has moved on. And there's the prospect of a child, which brings a slight Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? feeling to The Anniversary Party. Other touchstones are the movies of John Cassavetes and Robert Altman ' actors' showcases that cut to the heart of the modern condition. The Anniversary Party doesn't dig as deep as Cassavetes used to, nor does it scratch the surface with Altman's satirical flair. But it has the loosey-goosey charm of a home movie that's spun deliciously out of control.
Or, if not a home movie, then a homemade movie. Shot in 19 days for a mere $3.5 million, The Anniversary Party was co-written and co-directed by Cumming and Leigh, who conceived most of the roles for their friends. And to a tantalizing degree, the roles are also based on their friends, Kline having always been a rather self-involved actor, for instance, and Cates, his real-life wife, having put her career on hold to raise their kids (who appear in the film as...their kids). The movie's press material also makes the point that all the cast members did their own makeup and hair; and you suspect these are their real clothes. The overall effect is as if Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland had shouted, 'Hey, kids, let's put on a show,' only instead of the barn they do it in a modernist glass box by California architect Richard Neutra. All those see-through walls suggest both the openness and the fragility of these glitteratis' lives.
Although the camera rarely links the characters in any meaningful way, we flit from room to room, like a fly. And the movie picks up as the party does, a game of charades suddenly seeming like the ultimate acting exercise. Then, just as things start to wind down, someone pulls out Hollywood's drug du jour, Ecstasy, which sends the party into overdrive. The guests remove their clothes to expose their souls, and before you know it everybody's jumping in the pool. Cumming and Leigh have modeled their script on 1968's The Party, which starred Peter Sellers as a hapless actor from India who methodically reduces a Hollywood shindig to a shambles. There's even a Sellers lookalike in The Anniversary Party, a violinist who, when he needs a laugh, breaks into Sellers' ridiculous Indian accent. But where The Party was comic all the way through, The Anniversary Party is seriocomic, emphasis on 'serio.'
Which is to say, Ecstasy soon leads to Agony. Cumming and Leigh indulge themselves in a major confrontation scene that, though enjoyable and effective, also just seems like a bunch of really loud shouting. They're a rather strange pairing, these two, and not just because Cumming so convincingly made goo-goo eyes at Tom Cruise as the hotel desk clerk in Eyes Wide Shut. He's supposed to be bisexual here. But for all Cumming's efforts, Jack doesn't quite take shape as a full-fledged character. You'll notice, for instance, that he treats everybody he meets exactly the same, although that may be the point. (No wonder Sally wonders what she means to him.) Relationships are hard, the movie seems to be saying, even if you're a rich and famous narcissist. Put another way: Stars are people, too. As at any get-together, I was variously bored and elated during The Anniversary Party, but I wouldn't have missed it for the world.