Posted: 06/06/2001


The Anniversary Party


by Jon Bastian

An extremely talented cast doing what they do extremely well makes for a movie you cannot miss.

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Here’s a formula for a filmic disaster: get a bunch of actor friends together, give them a camera, let them handle the writing and directing duties and set them loose. Don’t believe the results can be excruciating? Did you (or anyone else) see Town & Country? But if you see The Anniversary Party — and you should — you’ll realize that this can also be the formula for cinematic magic. In their co-directing and co-writing debut, Jennifer Jason Leigh (Short Cuts, Last Exit to Brooklyn) and Alan Cumming (Spy Kids, Titus) got together, hashed out, improvised, pitched and sold this whole idea for what was basically a simple film to star them and their friends. Then, they shot it in nineteen days on digital video. Where they went right (and Warren Beatty and company had gone so wrong) is that they remembered to actually write a script before one frame was recorded. Since they wrote the script with each of the cast members in mind, the end result is an absolutely perfect uniting of performer and role that stuns with one Oscar caliber moment after another from this remarkable ensemble.

The Anniversary Party accurately sums up the premise of the film. The Therrians, novelist turning director Joe (Cumming) and actress Sally (Leigh), are celebrating six years of marriage. Of course, as we soon find out, this has not been an uninterrupted six years. After five, Joe split, and the couple has only been back together for five months, trying now to have a baby and get on with it. They’ve invited their friends over — along with certain “necessary” invitees, like Sally’s business manager Jerry (an hilariously dead-on John Benjamin Hickey, The Bone Collector) and his wife, Judy (Parker Posey, The House of Yes), and the troublesome next-door neighbors Ryan and Monica (Denis O’Hare (The Acting Class) and Mina Badie (Georgia), Leigh’s real-life sister), who’ve made it a hobby to record in great detail every single time the Therrian’s dog, Otis, barks. Continuing the real-life meets art tradition, Otis, Leigh’s dog, plays himself, and is third billed in the closing credits. He needs a better agent, although he did win the Palme d’Og at Cannes. Yes, that’s a real award.

Joe goes one step too far, though, when he invites mega-actress Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow, Se7en) the twenty… well, something blonde bombshell (the age keeps changing, on purpose) that he wants to play the lead in the film version of his novel. Since Sally (and everyone else) thinks the novel’s heroine was based on her, she is none too happy about this turn of events. She’s even less pleased when Skye does one of those “oh my god you’ve been my favorite actress since I was a little girl” speeches that only succeeds in making Sally feel even older than she is. This moment is just one of a series of buried treasures. The Anniversary Party is full of them.

As the guests arrive, the film takes off, and this is a case where character is plot, or vice versa. But that’s okay, because Leigh and Cumming have filled this house with so many interesting people that it’s fascinating to watch as the layers slowly peel away, through alternating heaps of lies and brutal honesty. The dialogue is witty and brittle and full of truth that had the audience laughing out loud throughout. This is also a very “LA” film (whatever that is), given that most of the characters are somehow involved with The Industry, but even those surfaces are eventually scraped off, leaving us with the real people underneath. Just about everyone isn’t who they at first seem to be, and yet their public faces do reveal a germ of who they really are underneath it all.

There is not a single performance in the film that isn’t remarkable, from the leads right down to the two rotund Hispanic women who play the Therrian’s domestics. I want to mention everyone by way of commendation, but if I forget anyone, it doesn’t imply that they weren’t excellent. Particularly effective, though, is Jane Adams (Happiness) as Clair, Sally’s incredibly neurotic, barely together actress friend who is so wound up on diet pills that her head could explode at any moment. Adams doesn’t just play this part. She inhabits it, and her very appearance and body language define exactly who this woman is on first sight. Jennifer Beals (Flashdance) plays Gina, Joe’s long time best friend and sob sister, who is also unfortunately beautiful enough to instantly spin Sally into all kinds of jealous self-doubt. To see Beals here automatically brings up the question, “Why didn’t this woman have a huge career after her debut?” She has a commanding screen presence and a very unique look, “smoldering,” I think you call it, and proves herself as an actress.

Kevin Kline (The Ice Storm) appears as Cal Gold, slightly arrogant and self-deluded actor — in other words, as a parody of all the worst things one might hear or believe about Kevin Kline. He plays the part absolutely straight with no overacting or mugging involved, and he reaches his high point when he recites from a rather inappropriate poem (Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”) as a tribute to the loving couple at the party — the joke being that the only thing that matters to Cal is a chance to show off as an act-or, suitability of the text be damned. Kline’s real-life wife of eleven years, Phoebe Cates (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), plays his wife, Sophia, and their own children play the couple’s children. The “interpretive dance” Cal does with his daughter was something Kline and his daughter once did for Leigh just for laughs. The nepotistic result of all of this, though, is good. Kline and company feel like a real family the instant they appear onscreen.

Also notable is playwright Michael Panes, in his screen debut, as Levi, Sally’s lovelorn violinist friend. Panes bears an uncanny resemblance to Peter Sellars, which is played on in the film, but he also has one of the nicest story arcs. Suffice it to say that Sellars was quite the ladies’ man, and the ability to make women laugh was a big part of that. Levi’s story provides the dash of sweetness necessary to lighten some of the bitterness on display, and it’s nice to see the nebbish win for once.

And, finally, we have our leads, Leigh and Cumming, who I have long thought are two of the finest and most chameleonic actors alive today. It’s nice to see them play much closer to themselves for once, and it goes without saying that they are both just brilliant, as always. Leigh can tell us more about what her character is thinking with just a glance and a slight curl of the lip than most actresses can reveal in a ten page monologue, and Cumming finally gets a chance to show his range here, rather than being confined to his usual twisted character parts. But it’s a credit to both of them that, despite being writer-director-stars, they don’t hog the screen. Everybody gets their big moments, and the Therrians only stand out because it’s their party, not because Leigh and Cumming are aiming the camera. If anything, this could almost be considered an anti-vanity project — there are no gauzy glamour shots here, but real people, warts and all.

The Anniversary Party is, first and foremost, an actors’ playground, but the actors behind it were smart enough to craft a strong script (with the knowledgeable advisement of Leigh’s screenwriter mother, Barbara Turner) and avoid all the pitfalls of trying to improvise anything. The end result is an absolute romp full of fireworks and revelations that will alternately have you laughing your ass off and gasping in recognition. This may be a room full of showbiz people, but strip away the glitzy jobs, and they’re all people we’ve met before. Underneath it all is the core of what makes all great art — a human heart, beating strongly, beckoning us to listen.

Jon Bastian is a stage, screen and TV writer who lives in LA and hopes that someday his dog, Shadow, will win the Palme d’Og at Cannes.

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