The idea behind The Anniversary Party sounds scary: two well-known character actors decide to write, direct and star in their own film, with an improvised script and many of their Hollywood friends co-starring. Yikes! Can you say "self-serving"? That was why I avoided it until it wound up at the local cheap theatre – but I'm glad I caught it.
The Anniversay Party is one night in the life of hotshot writer Joe Therrian (Cumming) and fading movie star Sally Nash (Leigh), a married couple only recently reconciling after six months apart. In order to celebrate their six year anniversary (and their reconciliation), they throw a party and invite all their artsy friends. It all sounds peachy – but they also have invited their uptight neighbors, who have been threatening them with lawsuits over their noisy dog.
Although the dog thing sounds silly, the awkward situation with the neighbors lends an undercurrent of uneasiness to the evening, which slowly bubbles to the surface as the cracks in Joe and Sally's relationship start showing. You see, Joe is about to direct the film adaptation of his novel, casting hot young actress Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow, bearable for once) in the lead role that was based on Sally herself, and that's added some tension. There are also some issues with their inability to have children and with Joe's drug addict sister back in England.
With dark notes like that, unhappiness is bound to ensue, but first we are treated to an honest you-are-there look at a Hollywood party, where yes, there are drugs, there is sex, there are half-naked people jumping in the pool, but there is more than that. Hollywood insiders for years, Leigh and Cumming know their inner circle well: these aren't the soulless film executives skewered in movies like The Player but the creative people at the heart of show business – actors, musicians, photographers, writers, directors – all presented as undeniably talented if unstoppably neurotic. (I have yet to meet any successful artist that doesn't fit that general description.)
Adding to the voyeuristic realism is the fact that many of the cast members are playing slightly fictional variations of themselves, particularly Kevin Kline and real-life wife Phoebe Cates, as well as Leigh, at whose actual home the film was shot. Believe me, it's difficult for most actors to play themselves honestly; they're better at faking it. There's a lot of laudable bravery on display here, and the cast is perfect.
Oddly, the least believable aspect of the story is Joe and Sally's relationship. There is something about the chemistry between Cumming and Leigh where you just can't buy them as a married couple. Which sadly lessens the impact of their ultimate confrontation scene – I was wishing they would cut back to their more interesting guests instead, the most intriguing of whom is relatively unknown actress Mina Badie as the hesitant neighbor who discovers herself over the course of the evening.
Shot on digital video, the film looks remarkably good. It also has an unbelievably hip soundtrack. I recommend it.