Directed, written, produced by and starring veteran actors and rookie auteurs Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh, Anniversary Party is a frolic in the well-manicured gardens of celebrity pain. Shot with handheld cameras on digital video and transferred to film, the movie uses the ultra-vérité Dogma 95 stylistic template as a jumping-off point to tell the story of a young Hollywood couple and their circle of friends, their emotions messily entwining over the course of a night.
Cumming and Leigh play Joe and Sally Therrian, he a British writer given the chance to direct an adaptation of his novel, she his actress wife with a career in decline. As the film opens, the Therrians are together again after a year-long trial separation. In a wise decision for a couple on shaky emotional ground, they decide to celebrate the occasion of their sixth anniversary with a claustrophobic, alcohol-drenched party, inviting only their closest friends, old flames, and a few wild cards to spice up the plot.
The invitation list reads like a catalogue of barely concealed dysfunction: Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates play Cal and Sophia, respectively Sally's latest co-star and his wife who dropped out of the industry to raise a family (Kline and Cates are married in real life, her career having followed a similar arc to her character's), who now feels trapped by her responsibility; John C. Reilly and the brittle, spectacular Jane Adams play Mack and Clair, the frustrated, ineffectual director of Sally's latest film and his actress wife, who has kept working after the birth of their child; Parker Posey and John Benjamin Hickey play the Therrians' business managers, her gaze unsure and possibly over-medicated while he seems in need of anger-management therapy, or at least whatever pills she's on.
There is a variety of other guests at the party, including Flashdance's Jennifer Beals as Joe's gorgeous, flirty ex-lover; Gwyneth Paltrow as the improbably named Skye Davidson, a flighty young actress taking the part in Joe's film that everyone assumes is based on Sally; the Therrians' contentious, lawsuit-inclined neighbors; and a few random friends, including Levi, a sweetly dorky violinist (Michael Panes) who is a confidante to Sally, and a wistful young man who was possibly a college lover of Joe's.
As the guests begin to arrive and circulate, the real fun starts. The first 80 minutes of the film are a sick pleasure to behold, as everyone struggles to maintain decorum in the face of old and new enemies, rivals and swiftly circulating gossip. Anyone who's ever been to an uncomfortable party will cringe with recognition at the awkward silences and pregnant glances between guests as they struggle to make small talk after an innocently intended but deeply hurtful remark.
It's not all pain and suffering, though. There's plenty of humor, albeit very black, woven into the guests' conversations. Sally does a wonderful slow burn as Skye, whom Sally feels stole her intended role in Joe's film, becomes starstruck upon meeting her age-anxious idol. "Ohmigod, Sally Therrian! I've been watching your films since I was a little girl!" Skye exclaims with the beatific purity of youthful tactlessness. The pathos and humor balance each other nicely, making for a beautifully delicate tangle of thorns entrapping the guests.
Unfortunately, that balance doesn't last as long as the film does. Somewhat overlong at 115 minutes, the film and the party are sabotaged by a third-act surprise gift from Skye that opens up the guests emotionally, making painfully explicit the tensions that were kept so artfully restrained through the first two acts. Joe and Sally's relationship devolves into a shouting match, and their guests involve themselves in various self-destructive activities, seemingly just to have something to do for the rest of the film. When they run out of embarrassing personal discoveries to make, and after a completely unnecessary tragedy (that by the end seems paradoxically as inevitable as it does tacked-on, the physical manifestation of every psychic stress the characters experience), the film just stops; there's not any sort of ending to speak of, but the credits roll anyway.
Which, by that point, is the only possible welcome new development. On top of the characters' personal revelations, Cumming and Leigh as filmmakers seem obsessed with a need to explicitly refer to other conversation- or party-centric films. When one character tells Levi the violinist that he resembles Peter Sellers, Levi begins to speak in an Indian accent, a clumsily-integrated imitation of Sellers' role in Blake Edwards' The Party, a long-forgotten (and vastly different) party film. Other characters begin to seem as though they were directly lifted from other films, especially Woody Allen's vaguely similar Husbands and Wives and the talky, philosophical 1990s output of Henry Jaglom.
Cumming and Leigh have crafted an often hypnotic, if somewhat derivative, film about the various pains of being alive. The actors clearly relish their roles, and while they are asked to act, the results are fascinating. However, when they are asked to yell, the proceedings just become taxing. Like any party that turns into a screaming fight, watching the tension develop is terribly fun; but when the hosts start to get nasty, you might want to leave a bit early.