Party Pooper 

Throwing A-listers onscreen with neither plot nor direction creates a sloppy mess like The Anniversary Party.

You, too, can be a cutting-edge filmmaker. Just ask veteran character actors Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, who scribbled out a slapdash screenplay, invited several friends to play characters based on themselves, and shot The Anniversary Party on digital video in 19 days.

It might be just that easy to make a film, but it’s hardly ever that easy to make something worth watching. What Leigh and Cumming came up with is a strangely dispassionate relationship movie, notable chiefly for its overlarge cast of two dozen scenery-chewing actors competing to overperform the others.

The best aspects of John Cassavetes and the worst aspects of Robert Altman are mixed with a skewed Dogma 95 sensibility in a film that turns out to be an opera of self-indulgence, despite several compelling moments and scenes. It seems actors are just as capable of making boring home movies as we are.

The film takes place over 24 hours in the life of Joe and Sally (Cumming and Leigh), a Hollywood couple on the verge of a nervous breakdown. They’ve invited every single person they know to their glass-walled house in the Hollywood Hills, where they’re celebrating their 6th wedding anniversary, their recent reconciliation after a separation, and their even more recent decision to start a family.

Joe is a British novelist who’s writing a screenplay in order to direct a film version of his semi-autobiographical first novel, while serious actress Sally is starring in a film opposite Cal (Kevin Kline) that she hopes will keep her faltering career going.

Their friends include Sophia (Phoebe Cates, still captivating), Cal’s wife and a former actress who’s now a mother; Skye (Gwyneth Paltrow), the ingenue who’s been hired to play a role originally written for Sally; Mac (John C. Reilly), a director; and Judy and Jerry (Parker Posey and John Benjamin Hickey), the couple’s entertainingly neurotic business managers.

The filmmakers’ condescension turns out to be the most annoying aspect of The Anniversary Party. Leigh and Cumming clearly didn’t think there was anything arrogant or presumptuous about slapping together this film with an obvious minimum of grunt work and calling it art. As they’ve said in interviews promoting the film, they thought so many actors doing so much incredibly creative acting would be reason enough to watch. I must beg to differ.

In addition, they seem to have mistaken a whole lot of tedium and minutiae for profound insight into everyday life. To be fair, it’s an easy mistake to make, particularly by Hollywood types who wouldn’t know a real-life problem if it offered to valet-park their Bentley.

Somewhat surprisingly, it’s not the worst-looking movie in recent years. In fact, the grainy video looks mostly good. In the hands of a skilled cinematographer like John Bailey, it seems that even unambitious mediums can work for a feature film. The picture’s limited locations help, but Bailey still gives the picture a distinctive look that enhances the improvisational feel.

The camera work isn’t to blame for the entire project’s gauzy, artificial veneer. Jennifer and Alan must take the blame. While this isn’t a vanity project along the lines of Gwynnie’s Duets or just about anything Kevin Costner has made, it’s still very much the kind of film that’s infinitely more interesting to the people in it than to anyone else.

In the third act, things take a predictably tragic turn after an incoherent interlude with a few Ecstasy tabs. That’s when The Anniversary Party passes from a mild annoyance to a huge weight pressing on the audience’s necks. Cumming, the most flamboyantly gay guy posing as a straight guy in Hollywood today, leads the way with a singularly unconvincing performance as a man in turmoil (he instead plays an actor making fun of a man in turmoil), while Leigh needs all of her smoldering charm to survive.

So many actors doing so much ACK-ting! is simply exhausting, because there’s nobody around to stop them from indulging their every goofball, self-important whim … imagine an entire film consisting of Robert Downey Jr.’s bizarre preenings in front of the mirror in Two Girls and a Guy. Directors of dramas often do their best work in babysitting and restraining their actors; Leigh and Cumming are the directorial equivalent of the punk teenager who lets the kids run wild.

None of the characters’ problems add up to very much, and we’re left with the overwhelming feeling that writing and directing might be best left to writers and directors. After all, if making a good film were really this easy, everybody would be doing it.

The Anniversary Party (R) H1/2 Directed by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming. Starring Phoebe Cates, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kevin Kline.

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Greg Beacham

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