Anniversary Party
A Film by Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh

Film has been described as the most collaborative of the arts - involving as it does dozens - if not hundreds - of indiviudal creative talents: the actors, the scenic, set and production designers, the wardrobe and make-up specialists, the writers, directors and special effects creators, and many, many more. Sometimes, the challenge of co-ordinating the efforts of all these individual creative visions into a semless whole overwhelms the director - whose job includes final responsibility for that unification (as in the movie Shrek, reviewed here last month). Sometimes collaboration yields superior levels of creative achievemment.

This new film, co-written and co-directed by actress Jennifer Jason Leigh and actor/director/writer Alan Cumming, focuses their considerable talents - and those of a host of their collaborators from the film community - on a black comedy of manners reminiscent of the acerbic English satirist Evelyn Waugh. The film gives a new nuance of meaning to the expression "excruciatingly funny."

Anniversary Party is clearly a film made by Hollywood insiders, with many inside jokes and, I am sure, references to particular personalities and situations that I - as a distant outsider - did not get. But the writers and directors - who in this case are the same people - expand the characterizations well beyond the two dimensional stick figures of most of what currently passes for satire to give the conflicts and situations depicted a universality and depth they might not otherwise have had, that can speak to any viewer.

One of the central features of the plot is the interplay of ego, politics and economic and emotional inter-dependencies, that inform the conventions of behavior - what used to be called manners - in modern American society. While such complicated, multi-faceted webs of relationship are certainly an accepted part (almost a clichˇ) of Hollywood life, they also mirror - if exaggerate - the kinds of inter-actions we increasingly see in the rest of the world. Blended families, friendships that impinge on working relationships (and vice-versa), divorce and separation, family relations - all these recognizable complications are part of the everyday fabric of all of our lives.

The setting of this examination of modern morals and manners is the eponymous anniversary party - held by established (but aging) film-star Sally Therrian (Leigh) and her novelist and soon-to-be-film-director husband Joe (Cumming). The couple are celebrating their sixth anniversay, having been reunited for several months after a painful separation. But their reunion is far from idyllic. As the story unfolds, they - and many of their guests - unpack much baggage collected in the process of struggling with relationships in an increasingly confusing and relativistic world, and the dirty laundry aired induces bursts of laughter - as well as cringes of recognition.

Joe and Sally, for instance, are trying to have a baby - or are they? Their ambivalance about exchanging their established, independent, succesful lives for the unknown territory of family life, and accepting the stigma of bourgeois life and the responsibility of parenting - which may mean surrendering some of their image of themselves as Bohemian free-spirits, forever young - is one of the many issues approached, illuminated, and left tanatizingly unresolved in this ambitious and intelligent film.

On the one hand, they have the model of their friends Cal and Sophia Gold (Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates - who are in fact husband and wife). Cal is a sucessful actor, starring opposite Sally in her current film. Sophia has given up her career to raise their two beautiful children (winningly played by the couple's own children). On another hand, there is the example of Claire and Mac Forsythe (Jane Adams and John C. Reilly). Mac is the frustrated and overwhelmed director of Sally's and Cal's current movie. Claire is a working actress who is trying to reconcile recent motherhood with her former life-style and self-image, and is a manic, neurotic jumble of emotions and attention, alternatively obsessing on and totally forgetting her child.

Then there are Jerry and Judy Adams (John Benjamin Hickey and Parker Posey), an ambitious, sucessful "me-generation" couple - he is Sally's manager - whose childlessness is part of their life-style. And there are "the neighbors," Ryan and Monica Rose (Denis O'Hare and Mina Badie), an uptight, seemingly highly-conventional, non-Hollywood couple who live next door and are engaged in an ongoing feud in connection with the barking of Joe's beloved dog.

On yet another hand, there is Gina (Jennifer Beals) Joe's long-time best friend and former lover, an unattached free spirit whose "bond" with Joe is both supportive and possessive. And there is violinist Levi Panes (Michael Panes), who is Sally's closest male friend and confidant. And then, there is Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow) the American Sweetheart of a rising starlet who is set to play the part inspired by Sally in Joe's film adaptation of his successful novel!

All the complexities of these relationships, and the unexpectedly revealing glimpses we get into the personalities behind them (through episodes like the cut-throat game of charades and the kitschy, off the wall "tributes" to the happy couple) expose for examination many of the invisible forces that impinge on our lives - pressures of career, of relationship, of family, of self-image, of responsibility. The sometimes savage but ultimately compassionate deconstruction serves the same purpose here as it does in all great satire, to enable us to look at ourselves more clearly and sympathetically by engaging our sense of humor.

And the film comes to no ultimate conclusions about its characters or their situations. It simply describes them, exposes them to our view, somtimes as objects of ridculous ego, sometimes as creatures of pathetic insecurity, sometimes as engines of ruthless self-interest, sometimes as people strangled by nearly suicidal self-restraint, sometimes as characters filled with genuine compassion and caring. It is food for thought that is being served up here, in a film that invites the audience to invent its own "sequel" to the events depicted.

The writing is wonderful. The dialogue is crisp and witty, but unforced - realistic, but articulate, unafraid of its own intelligence. Although there is a lot of dialogue, there are are also plenty of silent spaces, plenty of places for the actors to work with their faces and bodies as well as their voices. The story is presented in a mosaic narrative style, where a scene will start with a focus on a particular character, involve another, and then follow the second character off, to become the principle character of the next scene.

Or, it will jump from one of the ongoing stories to another, following multiple narrative lines that intertwine and disperse. It is an exhilarating and vivid approach, when done as well as it is here - and it fits grandly with the actual frame of the story. It is like being at the party, moving from room to room, overhearing snatches of this or that conversation, spending time with this guest, then that one, learning a little (sometimes embarrassingly too much) about their histories and circumstances.

Cumming has written several previous scripts that have been produced. This is the first for Leigh. Their collaborative work shows great promise, with a keen ear for how people talk as well as an austerity of style that sticks to the topic at hand, and never allows the subject to be overwhelmed by "good writing." As actors, they know enought not to try to write everything, but to leave plenty of room for the actors to create nuances of their own.

In a few places - and in the overall course of the story - there is a slight air of exaggeration. It is hard to believe, for instance, that the central characters could exchange some of the anger, accusations and revelations that they do (the writing reaches a pitch, at one or two points, reminsicent of Albee's Who's Afraid Of Virgina Woolf?), and then end up sharing a bed that night. But the "slightly larger than life" quality is nicely covered by the fact that, after all, these are "movie people," dramatic types, and if their lives a bit over the top - well, of course! Cumming's and Leigh's fine writing makes it easy to ignore such small anomalies.

As directors, Cumming and Leigh have gotten great work from their talented ensemble cast. It certainly must help that they are all colleagues, and that many of them have worked together previously on other people's projects. It surely helps that both Leigh and Cumming broke into the business as actors, and are actors still. They undertand the process from an actor's point of view, and have managed to encourage their cast to be as daring as they need to be, while restraining them from the self-indulgent mugging and self-conscious "making fun of themselves" which would have destroyed the crucial sympathy they develop for their characters.

The cast responds by giving uniformly laudable performances. Leigh and Cumming - as the gravitational centers of the action - do the bulk of the work, but wonderful moments - particularly from Cates, Adams, Reilly, Paltrow, O'Hare and Badie - are what flesh out the film and give it resonance and dimension. In spite of singling out these performances, the truth is that there is really no one in the cast, from the leads, to the scene-stealing performances by the Cates-Kline offspring, to the taciturn but obviously knowing Mexican-American maid ironically named America, who doesn't make an important contribution to the film

The acting is truly an ensemble effort. In an early scene, involving a hilariously painful gaffe during the introduction of the neighbors - it is the reactions of Badie, O'Hare and Leigh, as much as Cates's Gracie Allen-like monologue, that keeps the scene teetering between laughter and pain, between humiliation and humor, and amplifies the effect of the dialogue and the situation as written, into something with which we can all identify, and suddenly see clearly from all points of view at once. Then, with deadpan timing, they let it drop away in an offhand manner, without milking it an instant too long.

The production values are excellent. Michael Penn's unobtrusive but noteworthy score - jazzy and smooth - adds accents and counterpoints that present their own indirect sub-text to the visuals. Set design and costuming - including subtle touches like neigbor Ryan Rose's slightly ill-fitting, obviously off-the-rack clothing, that underscores his "otherness" among the sometimes rumpled but always designer-clad glitterati - add insight into characters through showing what they surround themselves with - how they dress.

This is an independent film. Its modest set - a single home on a single day - avoids location work, special effects, second unit work, and all the things that add cost to a movie. It is a textbook example of doing a lot with a little. In spite of being basically a "one-set" film, Anniversay Party makes the most of its location - there is hardly a room in the house or a corner of the grounds that doesn't act as the setting for at least one scene. By judicious and beautifully-paced editing and by inconspicuous but energetic camera movement and imaginitive camera placement, we never grow visually tired of it.

Anniversary Party is an exceptionally well made film. It stays with you and grows on you. It is well-made, well-written, well-acted, and despite the many delightful moments of comic relief, it deals with the real crises and conflicts of adult life in the modern world in a serious, difficult, provocative and sympathetic way.

That's my take on it. What's yours?