You have to wonder whether Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh didn’t have “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” in the back of their minds–subconsciously, perhaps–when they were putting together this joint writing-directing effort. The titular party has a guest list far longer than the two couples that populated Albee’s play, and the locale has been shifted from a university campus to the Hollywood hills. But the situations are often quite similar, and the conversational rhythms frequently so too. Games of “get the guests” and “humiliate the hosts” are played, and there are periodic emotional outbursts meant to show the true characters lying beneath the surface. One female invitee is a mousy, hysterical Sandy Dennis type. There’s a major secret between the central couple–involving a non-existent child. And as the evening goes on, major revelations occur–in the case of the play under the influence of alcohol, and here under that of a designer drug.
If some sort of homage was intended, it must quickly be said that the copy pales beside the original. “The Anniversary Party” is nowhere near as clever, as taut, or as wrenching as “Virginia Woolf.” It doesn’t dig nearly as deep, and its themes are far less profound. Nonetheless, it has some telling moments and showcases some good performances. It’s a pity that its third act piles on so many melodramatic contrivances–a near-drowning, a couple of shouting matches, an out-of-the-blue tragedy–that the seams holding the piece together are simply shredded. The picture becomes self-important, but lacks the dramatic weight to sustain its pretensions. It would have been better for it to have been content to remain the shallow but amusing little drawing-room comedy it started out as.
The set-up is at once simple and complex. Joe (Cumming) and Sally (Leigh) Therrian are celebrating their sixth anniversary. He’s a trendy novelist about to begin a directing career with a filmization of his latest book; she’s a well-known actress more adept at drama than comedy, and just a bit too old to play a character in the proposed picture, even though it seems based on her. Moreover, they’ve just gotten back together after a separation, and are supposedly trying to have a child, at least partially to strengthen their relationship. Among the close friends invited to share an evening with them are smug leading-man Cal Gold (Kevin Kline), who’s co-starring with Sally in a new film, and his wife Sophia (Phoebe Cates), who gave up her acting career for marriage and motherhood (they bring along their two kids to the festivities); Mac Forsyth (John C. Reilly), the director of Cal and Sally’s movie, along with his wife, the overwrought Clair (Jane Adams), who’s constantly worried about the babysitter in whose charge they’ve left their young son; Judy and Jerry Adams (Parker Posey and John Benjamin Hickey), the Therrian’s business managers; Gina Taylor (Jennifer Beals), a photographer who’s an old flame of Joe; and Levi Panes (Michael Panes), a violinist who resembles Peter Sellers. Also in attendance are Monica and Ryan Rose (Mina Badie and Denis O’Hare), the Therrian’s neighbors, with whom the hosts have been conducting a running battle about a barking dog, and Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow), the ingenue whom Joe has cast in the role in his film that Sally thinks should be hers. As the evening progress, the interrelationships among the characters are explored with varying degrees of success. A few have some complexity, bit most are relatively superficial (all the stuff involving the Roses, for instance, is just a cheap joke, and the tension between the angry Sally and the blissfully oblivious–or is she?–Skye is equally thin). The big revelation is that antagonisms can lie beneath the surface of even the best friendships, that everybody has imperfections of one sort or another, that even the closest couples keep secrets from one another, and that even the most successful people have neuroses and insecurities. None of this is very surprising, and much of it is all too predictable. Even worse, especially as the narrative runs on, a lot of it becomes overly melodramatic.
Still, it’s performed with gusto by Cumming, Leigh, and a cast of their friends. It’s easy to understand why so many talented people were attracted to the project. It gives each of them a few choice scenes interspersed throughout the running-time. At times it’s like watching a series of acting exercises as the camera discreetly moves from star to star to afford each a chance momentarily to shine. Everybody does well enough, but with so many characters, none of them emerges as much more than an easy sketch. Joe and Sally are best realized, but even they never seem fully formed.
The picture was shot over only 19 days on digital video, and technically is more workmanlike than elegant. The construction is a bit ramshackle, the compositions rudimentary. And despite all the thespian talent on display, it remains relatively slight and obvious. “The Anniversary Party” isn’t awful by any means–at times it’s quite engaging–but it’s nothing to celebrate either.