Photo by Peter Sorel

The Anniversary Party sounds like a lousy idea, like something cooked up by the bored or the underemployed. Shot on digital video, then transferred to film, it was written and directed by actors Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, who also star as a married couple celebrating their sixth anniversary with a dozen or so of their most beautiful and neurotic friends and acquaintances, most of whom are played by actors who’ve worked with the apprentice directors before — Gwyneth Paltrow, Phoebe Cates, Kevin Kline, Parker Posey,
Jennifer Beals, Jane Adams, John C. Reilly. For those of us who love actors, but at a safe distance and in moderation, this might seem very bad news indeed. And, in the final stretch, during which Leigh and Cumming calamitously lade their fine, modest movie with some hump-the-hostess shrieking and really big acting, it is. Which is too bad, because the first hour is so much better than it should be.

Leigh is Sally Therrian, a Hollywood actress somewhere in her 30s and on a career slide. Cumming is Joe Therrian, a hot British writer, perhaps younger than his wife, who’s about to direct his first movie, based on a novel he wrote about a woman everyone assumes is Sally, including Sally. Tucked into their Neutra house in Laurel Canyon, with the dog that substitutes for the child they’re struggling to have, Sally and Joe are a welter of site-specific clichés. There are the private yoga sessions, the pair of Latina housekeepers bustling in the background, the huge photographs of the couple that cover the walls like so much anxious, relentless proof: See, here we were young. Here, we were happy. Here, we were in love. It’s an anxiety that you see in the very first shot in The Anniversary Party, as Sally gazes at Joe with the fixed stare of the lover who thinks if she blinks, it will all disappear.

Framed by the day and night of the party itself, the film hangs on the question of whether that anxiety is justified, and why. Friends, colleagues and rivals come and go — there are the neighbors with whom the two are feuding, Sally and Joe’s hardball lawyer and his twitchy wife, Sally’s director and his even twitchier actress wife — an ebb and flow of relationships that slowly bring the central pair into relief. There are Cates, in a wonderful turn, and Kline (her husband in real life), playing the blissful couple who live in a state of enviable grace, and who make a vivid contrast to Adams, equally wonderful, and Reilly, as the actress-wife and director-husband who live somewhere else. There is the beautiful young actress with the impossible name of Skye Davidson (played nice and easy by Paltrow), whom Joe wants to star in his film, in the part for which his wife is now too old. (“I’ve been watching your films since I was a little girl,” Skye squeals to Sally in one of the funniest bits. “I worship you!”) And there is the neighbor (Mina Badie) who doesn’t mind Joe and Sally’s contempt because — and for all the relationship talk, this is the film’s most bitter and true insight into human relations — she’s also a fan.

Funny in fits and starts, with the natural rhythm of everyday life, the film runs along less like a composed work than a patchwork of conversations about life, love, marriage, children, barking dogs and, of course, the movies. Although well shot by John Bailey, it has the flat ugliness of digital, which means that everyone’s face looks gray and the images have no depth, no beauty. In a film like Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration, the digital video made sense, had meaning (as the family broke down, so did the image); here, the choice to shoot in digital seems to have been purely economic, and the film feels all the more weightless as a result. It’s no great surprise that the best part of The Anniversary Party is the acting, even if Leigh and Cumming don’t always direct themselves as well as they do some of their co-stars. Sally slouches about for much of the film, growing blurrier as the evening wears on, only to end up a less interesting character at the end than at the start. It’s nice that Cumming finally gets the chance to play a real person, and while he and Leigh aren’t the most believable couple, it’s less because of his history of playing mincing creeps than the fact that the two writer-directors haven’t given their characters enough intimate downtime together. Sally and Joe do a lot of screaming, but as anyone who’s ever been in a relationship knows, it’s not the drama that makes a couple, it’s everyday, tender, quiet life.

THE ANNIVERSARY PARTY | Written and directed by JENNIFER
JASON LEIGH and ALAN CUMMING | Produced by CUMMING, LEIGH and JOANNE SELLAR | Released by Fine Line | At selected theaters

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