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Rediscover:

The Anniversary Party

Dir: Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming

2001

Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.

Ever wondered what it’s really like to live in Hollywood? Of course you have. It’s impossible not to, regardless of how avidly you avoid (or devour) tabloid gossip and TMZ updates. But either way- whether the trashy delights of In Touch magazine aren’t enough to satisfy your voyeuristic streak or you find such drivel too mind-numbingly stupid to stomach – you’ll be captivated by the insightful, hilarious, revelatory and cringe-inducing truth of the so-called glamorous life captured by industry veterans Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cummings in their 2001 art-house gem, The Anniversary Party.

The form and finesse of a film like The Anniversary Party transcends tabloid sleaze while keeping its cast of characters – that hodgepodge of rich, famous, talented and troubled types that gives trashy media its addictive spice – intact. In The Anniversary Party, this celebrity gossip gang is fully present and accounted for, impeccably dressed and trotting out neuroses like the latest designer handbags. The story starts with a cinema sweetheart past her prime (Leigh) and her on-again, off-again husband, the intellectual bad boy (Cummings), hosting an anniversary party for “a few close friends.” Of course, under the circumstances this means a guest list including Hollywood’s latest “It” girl (Gwyneth Paltrow), the golden L.A. couple (real-life wedded luminaries Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates) and their mini-starlet kids, the “other woman” (Jennifer Beals), the neurotic actress/addict-turned-mother (Jane Adams) and her beleaguered director/husband (John C. Reilly), all manner of lies and deception and a few normal human types thrown in for the sake of perspective.

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Things begin to get ugly as soon as the opening credits roll away, as if the mere aura of so many conflicting egos and agendas is enough to set things off. Leigh’s Sally and Cummings’ Joe Therrian aren’t on particularly solid ground going into their anniversary soiree and, despite a tender opening scene of the couple sleeping side by side, the cracks in their marriage and denials beneath their reconciled surface begin to show almost immediately. With hints at failed pregnancy attempts, past infidelities, intimacies exposed in Joe’s latest novel and slights directed at Sally’s waning star power peppering the first few moments of the film – moments purportedly depicting the happy pre-party bustle but simmering with undeniable tensions – we’re left with no doubt that, as soon as the doorbell rings, every secreted skeleton in each party-goer’s designer label-filled closet will seize the opportunity to spring loose.

And spring they most certainly do. Awkward introductions and contrived pleasantries fade into champagne-fueled confrontations, most notable of which is that between Joe and his sweet, somewhat naïve next-door neighbor Monica (Mina Badie). The two bump into one another, quite literally, in the eclectically painted hall closet (an effective reminder of just how much emotional color, damage and destruction lies hidden just below the polished exteriors of seemingly “perfect” people); and their respective indiscretions initiate an exploration of mutual respect and marital dynamics that becomes increasingly central to the film as the party stretches into the wee hours.

Not to be stopped at mere garden-variety intoxication, the partiers push things to the breaking point – of social façade, bullshit, presumption and even mortality – by popping a few high-potency Ecstasy pills courtesy of hippy starlet Skye Davidson (Paltrow), who insists they are “a gift of love.” The ensuing chaos is like a coup staged by vulnerable humanity against the tyranny of Hollywood artifice: one by one, the actors peel away their protective gear (a courageous move on the cast’s part, convincing us as it does that individual realities are informing most of the supposed fiction taking place on screen). Relationships are challenged, affirmed, initiated – and some of the film’s most unforgettable lines, some of the truest things ever said about life as an actor and just plain old life in general, are uttered as each character abandons the PR script or assumed public persona and succumbs to the siren song of impulsive honesty.

Mired as we are in a cultural slew of so-called “reality” programs, the notion that Hollywood life might be revealed with artistry, genuine human drama and even a hint of that seemingly endangered quality, class, seems almost foreign. (Amazing, isn’t it? A mere nine years since its release and something like The Anniversary Party is rendered antique by virtue of its thoughtfully scripted conception). Thankfully, Leigh, Cummings and an ensemble cast enviable even by Altman-esque standards are a simple DVD rental away, still here to remind us that one well-written and fearlessly acted film is infinitely more illuminating than millions of manufactured “true stories” could ever be.

by Lauren Westerfield
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