A Party pooper

The Anniversary Party

Directed by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming

(Jennifer Jason Leigh, Alan Cumming, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Kline)

Rated: R

 

The ensemble dramatic comedy is among the hardest acts to pull off successfully in modern cinema, especially when the subjects are unpleasant people behaving unpleasantly. The filmmakers must be able to create a wide range of distinct, three-dimensional personalities, then develop each of these characters enough to make an audience care about him or her.

Depending on the director’s skill in characterization, these films can be exhilarating (Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, Todd Solondz’s Happiness), excruciating (David Rabe’s Hurlyburly, Neil LaBute’s Your Friends & Neighbors) or just uneven (P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia). The latest entry in the genre, The Anniversary Party, fits squarely into the latter category. The film was written and directed by its stars, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, two accomplished actors who bring a believable insider’s view to their story of a tumultuous gathering at the home of legendary actress Sally and flighty novelist Joe.

From the start it is clear that all is not right with the marriage. Joe and Sally have only recently reunited after a disagreeable separation. He is gearing up to make his
directorial debut with an adaptation of one of his novels, and she is hurt that she has not been cast in the lead role. That role has instead gone to a sexy young starlet who is among the friends, workmates and vague acquaintances who will soon assemble to celebrate Joe and Sally’s sixth wedding anniversary.

Leigh is a veteran of Altman’s brilliant multi-character pastiche, and she channels some of his reserved anarchy into the opening scenes, infusing them with just the right touch of painful comedy. The first hour is a delight and the characters become engaging despite their general nastiness. Especially good are Jane Adams as an overmedicated new mother and Michael Panes as a violinist who buries his insecurities under a perpetual Peter Sellers impersonation.

Unfortunately, it all comes crashing down in the second half, when the partygoers pop Ecstasy and let their real dark sides show. Any sympathy these ugly people might have inspired goes out the window, and the film loses direction entirely. Leigh and Cumming flail wildly to get back on track, but packing no less than four life-shattering occurrences into the last twenty minutes just makes everything seem desperate, amateurish and vile.

It’s a shame, because for part of the way, The Anniversary Party is jolly good fun. The highs are high indeed, but the lows are so low that they render the whole thing nearly unwatchable.

The Anniversary Party opens today at Landmark’s Uptown Theatre in Minneapolis.