A pretentious mess
I laughed heartily while watching The Anniversary Party, the star-stuffed, Jennifer Jason Leigh-Alan Cumming collaboration shot for something like 10 bucks over an 18-day period. The problem is, I was mostly laughing at the notion of Alan Cumming as a ruthless womanizer and not during the moments where I was supposed to chortle.
This is a miscalculated mess. Leigh and Cumming, who co-wrote and directed the film, obviously have many friends, and just about all of them wander through their movie, grasping their little indie moment to “riff,” coming off like an improv group drinking too much moonshine and getting carried away.
Cumming and Leigh play Joe and Sally, a married couple who have had their struggles with infidelity. Joe is a famous novelist getting ready to direct the screen adaptation of his novel, and Sally is an actress having trouble with her trade. They decide to have an anniversary party, where all of their actor and director friends—and the annoying neighbors—will drop by and commence pretentious whining.
The directing style seems simple enough. It’s as if cast members were told to use a few character traits and allowed to just “go off"—spewing improvisational rubbish that might pass for a decent home movie but does not a major motion picture make. While some of the actors obviously flourish in this format, some would’ve benefited from having their characters entirely spelled out for them, because their groping is not fun to watch.
Gwyneth Paltrow is annoying as Skye Davidson, a famous movie actress. Her prime directive is to act like a ditz, worshipping Leigh’s Sally and saying things like: “You are my favorite living actress,” and “I watched your movies when I was growing up.” We’re supposed to buy the idea that a movie actress would be this stereotypically stupid. Of course, this is the character who will provide the party with tabs of ecstasy and sleep with a partygoer she just met, because this is what big movie stars do … right?
Even more annoying is Jane Adams (so good in Happiness), embarrassing herself as a neurotic new mother, a character whose existence provides no rewards besides a splitting headache and stomach dysfunction. Adams is a good actress, but her depiction of psychosis might be just a tad too realistic for any movie, let alone a film about a little party. Cumming and Leigh would’ve done the film some good by getting Adams to tone it down a bit.
The king daddy of all annoyance is Cumming himself, a very flamboyant man trying to pass himself off as a randy heterosexual. Cumming is a decent actor, and he’s capable of playing different modes of sexual orientation, but it doesn’t help that he spends a large chunk of this movie with little rubber bands in his hair and cute little shorts. His depiction of an unfaithful, sex-hungry husband who makes out with his neighbor and eventually strikes his wife is a major credibility stretch. Watching him kiss Leigh is like watching someone kiss a bottle of soda.
John C. Reilly makes the most of his stoned-out, near-drowning moment in a swimming pool, and Kevin Kline gets a few laughs as an aging movie star. It’s also nice to see the long-absent Phoebe Cates again, delivering the film’s best work (seeing Leigh and Cates on screen together is a nice reminder of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a movie worlds better than this one).
If your idea of a good time is watching a slew of actors behave like assholes without a leash, then I guess The Anniversary Party is fair game. I’d rather inhale fire.