Friday 30 December 2011

Movie Review: The Anniversary Party (2001)

A fictional peak inside the private lives of Hollywood's elite, co-directors and co-stars Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming invite everyone to have a look at what happens at a house party for the rich and famous. The Anniversary Party has a fine ensemble cast and sizzles in patches, but cannot fully sustain the thrust of its intriguing premise.

Hollywood couple Sally (Leigh) and Joe (Cumming) are throwing a party to celebrate their sixth anniversary, although they only just got back together after Joe's latest rehab stint. Sally is an actress, although her age is beginning to work against her, and Joe is a best selling author who is embarking on his first directing assignment to transform his novel into a film. The tension between them is already high, since Joe selected young emerging starlet Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow) instead of Sally to play the leading role in the film -- and to make matters worse, Joe invited Skye to the party.

Other invitees include neighbours Ryan and Monica, who are not part of the Hollywood social scene but very much a thorn in the side of Sally and Joe due to their complaints about the incessant barking of Joe's dog. Actor Cal (Kevin Kline) and his wife Sophia (Phoebe Cates), director Mac (John C. Reilly) and his wife Clair (Jane Adams), and photographer Gina (Jennifer Beals) are among the many other guests. Cal, an aging actor himself, is Sally's latest co-star and struggling to still be considered for younger roles. Sophia is Sally's best friend and quite content at having abandoned an acting career. Mac is directing Sally's latest movie, and his wife Clair appears to be strung out on something. Gina is Joe's close confidant, and clearly her simmering presence makes Sally uncomfortable.

As the evening unfolds, everyone tries to pretend to be having a good time, but a strong current of tension crackles under the surface. When Skye unpacks Ecstasy tablet for the enjoyment of all, most inhibitions are lost and many hurtful truths are unleashed.

In a nod to the close ties between fact and fiction that permeate through The Anniversary Party, Phoebe Cates pretty much plays herself. She is Leigh's close friend in real life, and like her character Sophia, Cates left the acting industry early and came out of retirement for this role.

The first half of The Anniversary Party provides a glimpse into the social life of Hollywood's rich and famous, and unsurprisingly, they are an unrefined, vacuous, catty and self-obsessed group, which means plenty of fun. Arguments about a dog barking, rehab, and the latest ego-inflating projects dominate the conversation, with some overly pretentious discussion of Russian literature doing nothing to break through the dense superficiality.

Once the Ecstasy comes out, The Anniversary Party loses its way, and the second half of the movie stumbles around looking for a purpose. The attendees scatter into aimless groups and the delicious discomfort of the earlier encounters dissipates. A contrived near-drowning and the search for a missing dog further dilute the remaining energy, although the film does regain its nerve in enough time to allow Leigh and Cumming to enjoy a cleansing shouting match. The final act features an off-camera tragedy that revives the pulse of the movie, but it's a bit late to recapture the emotional momentum.

The always delightfully unpredictable Jennifer Jason Leigh avoids placing herself fully in the middle of her own movie but still emerges with the best performance from a crowded field. Leigh's dark expressions provide ample warning that although Sally starts the party in a bad mood, it's only getting worse as the evening unravels, as both her relationship and career receive rude awakenings before dawn.

As her husband Joe, Alan Cumming absorbs the fakery of Hollywood's fleeting obsession with the latest boy wonder, a man who is today's toast of a town that celebrates recovering heroes while eagerly anticipating their next crash.

The Anniversary Party is a voyeuristic invitation that is difficult to resist. As with most parties, some parts of the evening do drag, but the gathering is certainly worth dropping in on.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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