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[whitespace] 'The Anniversary Party'
Family ties: Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh try to stay married.

Tough Love

Hollywood romances hit the rocks in 'The Anniversary Party'

By Nicole McEwan

LIVE CLOSE. Visit often. According to screen legend Katherine Hepburn, that strategy is the very simple secret to maintaining a beautiful relationship. She should know. Her 25-year-long love affair with Spencer Tracy is said to be among the most tender and devoted in Hollywood history, despite the fact that these two actors never wed. (Tracy's rigorously Catholic wife refused to grant him a divorce.)

It's advice that might well serve the emotionally vacillating couple whose marriage woes lie at the heart of The Anniversary Party, a Dogma 95­style film written and co-directed by actors Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming. A biting, insightful peek into the romantic escapades of a group of Hollywood veterans, the film blends elements of The Big Chill and The Player.

The results suggest that interpersonal human dynamics are universal, relationship issues eternal, and happiness as elusive for the rich and famous as it is for the rest of us. These folks may be wearing Galliano and sipping Dom in a Richard Neutra­designed house, but their lives are as marred by addictions, infidelity, and failed dreams as anyone on Jerry Springer.

The party of the film's title is a celebration of Joe Therrian and Sally Nash's sixth wedding anniversary. Joe (played by Alan Cumming) is a renowned novelist whose latest book (rumored to be a thinly veiled exposé of his marriage) is about to be adapted as a film. Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a hugely respected actress whose career (and confidence) is waning.

After a six-month separation, the famous couple have not only reconciled; they have decided to start a family. The soiree, sporting a guest list awash in Hollywood A-listers as well as the couple's arty friends, is intended to cement their renewed (and hopefully improved) union.

Among the revelers: the couple's wound-tight married business managers (John Benjamin Hickey and Parker Posey); an Oscar-winning star, his beatific wife, and their two perfectly adjusted children (played by real-life smug-marrieds Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates, plus their genuine offspring); and the ditzy ingenue cast as Sally in Joe's movie (Gwyneth Paltrow).

What starts as a jolly celebration soon disintegrates into a wildly baroque soap opera, fueled by Ecstasy and complete with a celebrity skinny-dipping and near-death experiences. And with this cast of real-life friends and lovers, how could it not?

The truth is that Cumming and Leigh tailored the characters, dialog, and situations to match the mannerisms, personalities, and conflicts of the performers--which makes this whole effort a voyeuristic feast for the audience. The result is an intriguing parlor game where half the fun is dissecting fact from fiction.

And there's much to pick over. For instance, Sally's jealousy of her young rival throws a nice All about Eve twist to the mix, while highlighting Leigh's own dismal dealings with a town that has never quite appreciated her brilliance.

Beautifully, invisibly acted, the film's central flaw is lack of heat between the two leads. Cumming, again playing a sort of Peter Pan­sexual role, doesn't seem man enough to corral the tempestuous Leigh. Theirs is more of a mutual admiration society than a full-blooded passion.

The Anniversary Party was shot digitally in a mere 19 days by cinematographer John Bailey (As Good As It Gets), who deserves plaudits for the film's creamy, soft-focus look. Together with Leigh and Cumming, the production team has delivered a digital film that doesn't look like a home movie. It just feels like one.


'The Anniversary Party' opens Friday, June 22, at Rialto Cinemas Lakeside, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. For details, see Movie Times, or call 707/525-4840.

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From the June 21-27, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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