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The Anniversary Party

     The Anniversary Party slides through without a car crash, a special effect, a cop, or a randy teen. Instead, this movie's heartiest pleasure is a grandly entertaining acting ensemble. Some are very famous (Kevin Kline, Gwyneth Paltrow), some somewhat famous (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Phoebe Cates, Jennifer Beals), some cult-famous (John C. Reilly, Jane Adams, Parker Posey, Alan Cumming), some not-famous (Denis O'Hare, Levi Panes, Mina Baide), and all reign in their thespian egos.

     Too bad that the story (co-written by the film's co-directors, Leigh and Cumming) isn't, despite the fizz of the dialogue, a more stirring, less structurally predictable one. It's too obvious that the LA party, the celebration of six shaky years of a Hollywood marriage, is a generic set-up for a Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf?-style breakdown of the fragile partygoers.

     As guests trickle in, the DVD-shot, Dogma-inspired tale starts in social awkwardness, and devolves, of course, into snappish truth-telling, ruthless soul-baring, and the requisite sexual swapping. The attendants' inhibitions soar away courtesy of tabs of Ecstasy. Nipples are bared, people swim fearlessly at the bottom of the swimming pool, odd couples match up. Mechanically motivating the denouement: a shocker death which makes the characters sit up and ponder what's really essential. Message, message: there are things more important than the much-ado of a solipsistic party.

     Cummins and Leigh play the celebrants, Joe and Sally Therrian, and even for kooky-connubial Hollywood, their marriage seems a stretch. Joe's a big-dimpled, Stan Laurel-looking Brit writer with a history back home of drugs, raves, and bisexual promiscuity. Sally's a bit of a self-parody for Leigh: saturnine, out of the glam loop, with Actors Studio mumbles, and, deep in her 30s, losing her spot in the Hollywood of 2001. Now she's threatened with Joe hired to write and direct a movie from his autobiogaphical novel about their marriage; instead of casting his wife as herself, he's grabbed a young-and-delectable, $4-million-a-picture superstar, Skye Davidson (Paltrow, blonder than ever).

     Skye in jeans slinks into the party, and notes cattily of Sally that "You're my favorite living actress." Paltrow gets to be pretty funny; other actors are stranded waiting for their confrontational scenes. I enjoyed the muggings of Jane Adams as a hysteric actress discombulated by a recent pregnancy. Another winner: Mina Badie, a sweet counterpoint as a straightlaced neighbor, who feels unworthy at a hip film party.

(July, 2001)


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