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[whitespace] 'Anniversary Party'
Pooch and Smooch: Joe Cumming (Alan) and Sally (Jennifer Jason Leigh) lean over Otis the dog for a quick kiss in the semi-improvised 'The Anniversary Party.'

Pair Bonding

Acting couples air loads of dirty emotional laundry in 'Anniversary Party'

By Richard von Busack

SEE AN apparently devoted married couple exposed as fakers just barely hanging on! Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming's collaborative film, The Anniversary Party, isn't out to expose the corruption of the middle class. Instead it's designed to make us sympathize with the woes that neither swimming pools nor maid service can allay. Sally (Leigh) is an actress about to leave L.A. for London with her husband, Joe (Cumming), an Irvine Welsh type who has just been hired to write the film adaptation of his novel--a novel based, it's commonly guessed, on his battered marriage.

Tonight, Sally and Joe are celebrating their anniversary and the possibility of having a child. The guests include Parker Posey, Gywneth Paltrow, John C. Reilly and the real-life couple Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates. The rockiness of the reconciliation is apparent as the movie unfolds. Joe's longing to be a father, yet he's the first to pounce when an envelope full of Ecstasy arrives. The party drugs are a gift from a starlet Joe has invited (to Sally's anger): Skye Davidson (Paltrow). The girl is angling for the lead role in Joe's movie, a part Sally was convinced was going to be for her. Everyone partakes of the drugs, and some of the women get their clothes off (Brooke Adams is the ringleader). At long last, some truths come out.

Shot in 19 days, The Anniversary Party was semi-improvised. While it's believable that these characters know each other, it's not believable that they know what their roles are supposed to be. Halfway through, Sophia (Cates) says what some of the other guests may be thinking, that Joe and Sally's marriage is unstable. The announcement seems to come out of nowhere in light of an earlier scene in which the guests perform little songs and skits to honor the hosts' happy marriage.

This minor film comes alive whenever Kline or Cates is around. The sweet-faced Cates always seems smarter than her roles, and her sharp, plain-spoken delivery here proves it. It's comforting to pretend that pretty people are stupid, but the sad fact is that they're educated by watching the rest of us acting like fools, besotted by their beauty. Kline is called "Cal Gold" (California Gold?). He has the classic old-movie ease and charm of a golden-age studio movie actor.

A subplot has it that Sally's career is in trouble because of her latest film--the excerpt we see of it on video is some stilted acting in a romantic comedy. As a performer, Jennifer Jason Leigh has made a career of self-destructive girls; she puts a lot of work into her craft, and thus it's no surprise that it's often hard work to watch her. In her Sally, why don't we see the demands Leigh's particular intensity puts on her? Most of the characters in The Anniversary Party are artists, yet there's only rarely a sense of how art beguiled them. Cumming and Leigh's film isn't about the inner struggles of artists, it's about ordinary neurosis and rivalries of rich householders squabbling with their neighbors. The Anniversary Party wallows in the mud of grievances without digging up any treasures of insight.


The Anniversary Party (R; 115 min.), written and directed by Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh, photographed by John Bailey and starring Cumming, Leigh, Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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From the September 5-12, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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