Anniversary Party: Indie Directed by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming

A large ensemble of talented actors parade in The Anniversary Party, the promising feature debut from quintessentially indie thesps Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, who also function as co-writers.

Thematically, this intimate, occasionally piercing yarn combines elements of two genres: the reunion movie, with echoes of John Sayles’ The Return of the Secaucus Seven, and the marriage film, i.e. serio-comic anatomies of marriages on the brink of collapse, as evident in the works of Cassavetes and other directors.

End result is a rambling, moderately engaging meditation that contains honest, terrifically-acted scenes, but also quite a few self-indulgent passages, a recurrent problem in movies directed by actors. Fine Line should expect modest results in the art house circuit for a film whose best marketing hook is its high-profile cast that includes the filmmakers themselves, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Kline, Parker Posey, Jennifer Beals, and others.

Anniversary Party is an intermittently biting, darkly comic film about a dozen friends and co-workers who’re struggling to make sense of their lives and relationships. The film illustrates very much the axiom of French filmmaker Jean Renoir, well applied by Francois Truffaut in his work, that the actors are always more important than the characters they portray. Waves of recognition should flow between the players onscreen and viewers off screen who happen to be in showbiz.

Set over the course of a continuous, highly intense, 24-hour-period, this soul-searching tale could have been titled “Long Night’s Journey into Day. The occasion for the big reunion is provided by a celebration of the Therrian’s sixth anniversary. Centerstage is occupied by Sally (Leigh), a thirtysomething American actress, and Joe Therrians’ (Cumming), a hip British novelist whose career suddenly takes off when a movie version of his novel about their marriage is about to go into production.

As a couple, Sally and Joe are contrasted with their best friends, Cal and Sophia Gold (played by real-life couple, Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates). Cal is an acclaimed actor currently working with Sally, whereas wife Sophia has given up her acting career to raise their children.

In the first reel, most of the discussion revolves around the issues of how will babies affect Sally’s career and, more importantly, to what extent Joe is really ready and mature enough to become a daddy, particularly after a one-year separation in which Joe had the chance to deal with some troubling sexual ambiguities.

Whether married or not, most of the actors are grouped into couples, and most of the scenes unfold in an intensely dynamic manner. Hence, Mac (John C. Reilly), the director of Sally and Cal’s latest film, is happily married to Clair (Jane Adams), an actress who has continued working after the recent birth of their sons. The outsiders are Monica and Ryan Rose (Mina Badie and Denis O’Hare), the Therrians’ curious neighbors, who are threatening with litigation due to their ceaselessly barking dog. It’s through the Roses that the film encourages viewers to engage in voyeurism among the glitterati when they’re off guard, at a music-and-drugs party.

For a while, the text maintains an aura of freshness and spontaneity, convincing viewers that what they observe is an inside view of famously self-absorbed characters, immersed and even obsessed with their showbiz career and yet haven’t given up on their fantasies to lead more normal and routine family lives.

Periodically, the story is punctuated by dramatic clashes and emotional strains. For example, there’s a charged interaction between Joe and Gina (Beals), a sexy photographer who was once Joe’s flame. Much needed tension is provided by the arrival of Skye (Paltrow), a beautiful, flirtatious actress set to star in Joe’s new film. However, the big climactic scene in which Sally and Joe air their frustrations is overbaked and too hysterical.

Shot quickly (in 19 days) on digital video, the project must have been influenced by Leigh’s recent appearance in the Dogma feature, The King Is Alive (shown in Cannes last year). However, cinematographer John Bailey gives the images the clarity and richness of film, and editors Carol Littleton and Suzanne Spanger shape the material energetically, which helps masks its excessively digressive and discursive nature.

The film benefits from being written for a particular cast: It not only provides an inside, knowing look at showbiz, but also incorporates elements from the actors’ public images and previous screen roles. Hence, while the actors are not exactly “playing themselves,” inquisitive viewers will find themselves engaged in an intriguing puzzle, trying to guess which aspects of the script reflect the thesps’ offscreen personalities. Overall, Anniversary Party does capture the authentic feeling of the ins and outs of constantly changing relationships, and the casual, close-knit atmosphere of people who hang out together on a regular basis.

Anniversary Party is the kind of small-scale endeavor that actors revere because what’s seen onscreen is mostly thesps acting. Indeed, to a large extent, the movie is able to draw viewers in due to the immensely likable players, all of whom have big individual moments, hitting the right notes and keeping the confection tasty for most of the time.