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Party Dolls

Leigh and Cumming Create Devastating Scenes from a Marriage

It Takes Two: Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh write, direct, and play house in The Anniversary Party.

By Rachel Deahl | Posted

Here's both the good news and the bad news: Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, former co-stars in the recent Broadway revival of Cabaret, bring their theatrical sensibilities to the screen with The Anniversary Party, an examination of a marriage in peril that marks their debut turn as feature-film screenwriters and directors. With a cast of actual celebrities playing Tinseltown movers and shakers, Party oscillates between a self-indulgent examination of Hollywood egotism and, more interestingly, a complex two-character showcase, a portrait of a man and woman who can't seem to pull it together but can't bear being apart.

After a rocky separation, narcissistic British author Joe (Cumming) and waning Yank starlet Sally (Leigh) are attempting to put the pieces of their shattered marriage back together. To celebrate their return to cohabitation (in a beautiful ranch house set in the canyons of Los Angeles), the couple has invited a group of their nearest and dearest over for drinks, hors d'oeuvres, and an unexpected sampling of ecstasy (the drug, not the emotion). For Joe, the second try with Sally means an end to his infidelities and a rejuvenation of his career as he undertakes directing his first film, with a screenplay he has adapted from his latest novel. For Sally, the second go-round with Joe means a step in the opposite direction as she looks to put domestic life above her career and start a family.

Arriving on the scene first are the couple's business manager, Jerry (John Benjamin Hickey), and his needy, insecure wife, Judy (Parker Posey). Next through the door are Sally's best friend, Sophia (Phoebe Cates, Leigh's Fast Times at Ridgemont High co-star), and her husband, Cal (Kevin Kline), with their two young children in tow. Real-life marrieds Cates and Kline play closest to their off-screen images, with her as a formerly successful actress who has cast aside fame in favor of motherhood and him as an aging Oscar-winning actor. Mac (John C. Reilly), Sally's current director, and his wired, pill-popping actress wife, Clair (Jane Adams), are the other Hollywood couple on the guest list. Making an awkward entrance are Sally and Joe's neighbors Ryan (Denis O'Hare) and Monica (Mina Badie), outsiders in this close-knit group who quickly learn that they have been invited solely for the purpose of smoothing over some unneighborly exchanges regarding Sally and Joe's dog. And arriving late are two women who get under Sally's skin: photographer Gina (Jennifer Beals), Joe's beautiful best friend, and Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow), the hot young starlet Joe has cast in his upcoming film--in the role he based on Sally.

The Anniversary Party ambles along slowly in its early stages; at times it seems like Leigh and Cumming have done little more than host and film a real cocktail party, sketching a plot outline and asking their buddies to improvise their little thespian hearts out. Surprisingly, though, the constructed-reality aspect of the film feels less important and more coincidental as Party progresses. And, to Leigh and Cumming's credit, they turn what might have been an aimless Hollywood parody into a film with direction and dramatic forethought. Focusing on the relationship between Sally and Joe, with the details of their characters and of their coupling coming through side conversations among the guests, The Anniversary Party reveals itself as a devastating parable about love, unfolding much like a stage play--in a good way.

Though there are some amusing interactions among the partygoers, and some fine supporting performances from the cast (most notably a great comedic turn from Adams as a flighty, hypochondriac actress-turned-new-mom, a true woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown), most of the subplots get lost when played against the central relationship between Joe and Sally. Many of the characters merely fall by the wayside as their fates are revealed to be secondary and, finally, meaningless. The guests essentially exist to reveal Sally's jealousies and Joe's wandering eye.

The film's dramatic turning point comes about three-quarters of the way through, when Skye presents Joe with a package of ecstasy (an anniversary gift she simply refers to as "love"). When the guests down the pills, they start doing a little truth-telling, always the best way to keep a party light and upbeat. Among the most interesting confrontations is a brutally honest exchange between Cates' Sophia and Leigh's Sally in which the two women air regrets, resentments, and mixed feelings about forsaking career for motherhood. (One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the way it presents its women: All are expected to be maternal, but none can comfortably cross the divide between wanting worldly success and wanting children instead.)

The film's real punch, though, lies in its depiction of Joe and Sally. Though the particulars of their situation are not the most original, both characters end up as more complex and satisfying creations than they initially seemed to be. As the film's closing shot echoes its opening image--of the two stars entangled in bed--it's clear that, for all of the ground that has been covered for this pair during their anniversary party, life will continue to be one long exercise in acting their parts.

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