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Anniversary Party, The Print E-mail
Tuesday, 15 January 2002

The Anniversary Party

New Line Home Entertainment
MPAA rating: R
starring: Alan Cumming, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Kline, Phoebe Cates, Jane Adams, John C. Reilly, John Benjamin Hickey, Parker Posey, Denis O'Hare, Mina Badie, Jennifer Beals, Matt Malloy, Michael Panes
release year: 2001
film rating: Three-and-a-Half Stars
reviewed by: Tara O'Shea

There is something voyeuristic about watching "The Anniversary Party", a drama starring and written and directed by Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh. The duo cast the movie almost entirely with their friends and shot on location for almost three weeks in a glass house in the Hollywood Hills. While the story -- the sixth wedding anniversary party of actress Sally who has recently reunited with writer husband Joe -- is fiction, the performances and script are very raw and real. And there is a reason Joe and Sally live in a glass house.

The party guests include each of the spouses' single best friends -- Sally runs to a nebbishy fiddler (Michael Panes) when she cannot bear her jealousy of Joe's relationship with his photographer pal (Jennifer Beals). Joe delights in making their business manager's wife, indie-maven Parker Posey, feel uncomfortable and seems to take deliberate joy in every single awkward moment. Phoebe Cates and real-life husband Kevin Kline are marvelous as the veteran married couple Sophia and Cal Gold, and the Klines' real children play, of course, the Golds' delightful children. Mina Badie (Leigh's half-sister) and Denis O'Hare play the couple's brittle, not particularly likeable neighbours, who are invited only as an attempt to avoid a lawsuit over Sally's dog Otis. The couple represent the audience, in many ways, strangers in the strange land inhabited by Sally, Joe, and their Hollywood friends.

Jane Adams turns in a nails-on-a-chalkboard performance as simultaneously amusing and desperately pathetic new mother Claire. John C. Reilly, as her husband, Mac, appears even more laid back than usual next to his high-strung mate. Rounding out the ensemble, Gwyneth Paltrow plays clueless starlet Skye Davison, whom Joe has cast in the film version of his novel, which every person at the party knows is in fact based on his wife as a young woman. This is only one source of tension between Joe and Sally that as the course of the evening wears on comes to a predictably explosive head after the key players indulge in some Ecstasy. Under the rave drug's influence, all the ugly truths hidden beneath Sally and Joe's picture-perfect relationship are laid bare to the audience as well as the couple. Unfortunately, the script seems to simple stop rather than end satisfactorily, but what it lacks in closure, "The Anniversary Party" makes up for in characterization.

At times both funny and painfully difficult to watch, "The Anniversary Party" provides the feeling of eavesdropping on a close-knit group of friends, business associates, and adversarial neighbours. This is heightened by the fact that the movie was shot on high-definition digital video, using a Sony DSR-500 camera, which gives every shot a feeling of hyper-reality. All the sharp edges are there, practically and metaphorically, with all of the texture and depth. Nothing is in hazy soft-focus -- not the characters or their relationships, or the view of Los Angeles and life in the Industry. It is a relentlessly brutally honest snapshot of a deeply flawed marriage between two incredibly screwed-up people. Yet it also reveals the deep affection that Sally and Joe have for one another, which makes the knives they wield against one another sharper and more deadly. As a melodrama, it succeeds despite the slightly flawed script from first-time collaborators Leigh and Cumming.

The digital video format transfers to DVD with startling clarity and, because the film foregoes all the film-school nightmare visions of shaky hand-held "auteur" tricks, casual viewers will be surprised to learn that "The Anniversary Party" was shot on video. The quality is extraordinary, and should do much to quell anyone's fears about high-def video vs. film as we anxiously wait for big-budget projects such as "Star Wars: Episode II." The colors are consistent throughout, and the film has a very warm palette, with the exception of the underwater scenes (which are, incidentally, the only scenes shot on film). As the film is dialogue-driven, the sound mix is fairly standard. The film's rich score (featuring original music, as well as an eclectic mix of bands specifically chosen by the directors) comes from the rears, while the lion's share of the dialogue is squarely centered in the front. The left and right mains are used very well during the party scenes, with whispers and applause being well integrated with the dialogue.

The directors' commentary is slightly disjointed, as Cumming and Leigh seem to have been taped independently. The commentary appears to have been cobbled together from their separate tracks. However, it is fascinating to hear them explain how they came to conceive of the project, wrote roles specifically for their friends, and worked aspects of their lives and relationships into the story. The Sundance Channel documentary "Anatomy of a Scene" offers further insight into the film, focussing primarily on the "toast" scenes, and features some excellent insights into the production, particularly from editor Carol Littleton and director of photography John Bailey.

The DVD menus are simple and effective. The text, which is only a shade of two darker than the pastel background, can be marginally difficult to read. However, the graphics are subtle and fit the tone of the film perfectly. A gallery of actress Jennifer Beals' stunning black-and-white photography (which is used to great effect in the film) is theoretically available in the "cast and crew" section. Either there was a flaw in the review copy of the disc, or the menu is simply too clever for its own good, as this reviewer spent 10 minutes trying to figure out how to get the gallery to load before giving up and viewing it instead at the film's website, theanniversaryparty.com, thus, no doubt, defeating the purpose.

more details
sound format:
English (Dolby Digital 5.1)
aspect ratio(s):
special features: Audio commentary with Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh, Anatomy of a Scene - Sundance Channel Documentary, DVD ROM: Script to screen, Original web site, cast and crew photos by Jennifer Beals
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Pioneer DV-C302D
receiver: Yamaha RXU870
main speakers: Boston Acoustics
center speaker: Boston Acoustics
rear speakers: Boston Acoustics
subwoofer: Velodyne
monitor: 32" Sony Trinitron

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