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Spotlight on: The Anniversary Party

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Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh's The Anniversary Party

This debut from the unlikely team of Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh is the most uncomfortable experience I have had watching a film in a while. Not Requiem for a Dream discomfort, by any means; just an emotional tension that makes you feel for the characters.

The Anniversary Party mainly concerns the couple played by Cumming and Leigh, who have been separated for a considerable time (following their fifth anniversary) and have not yet figured out how to live with each other again. Their scenes are filled with tension combined with genuine love and effort in wanting to stay together.

The film takes place during one day and night of the preparation and then execution of a party for their sixth wedding anniversary. Cumming plays a novelist who has just been asked to direct his screenplay of his latest novel. The lead character of Jesse is well-known to have been based upon Leigh when she was younger. The leads Leigh, an famous actress in her own right, to feel she is the perfect person for the part. However, Cumming, through some coercion from the studio, has decided to hire the Gwyneth Paltrow character to play the part instead, telling her on the phone (overheard by Leigh) that she is his only choice for the role. He then invites Paltrow to their anniversary party, balked at by Leigh, who "didn't even invite my own mother."

In addition, everyone involved with Leigh's current film seems to believe, unbeknownst to her, that due to her emotional stresses, she is just "phoning it in." This opinion is supported when the director watches some dailies on the couple's widescreen television set. Also invited, for no other reason it seems than to provide conflict, are the next door neighbors, who bring with them their opinions on the couple's dog who apparently barks incessantly, yet we never hear it.

Kevin Kline, Leigh's current costar in said film, and his wife--played by his wife, actress Phoebe Cates (at her best in a later scene with Leigh)--arrive with their two children, played by...their two children. Unfortunately, the family members appear to have no chemistry with each other. If I had not known, I would have thought they were all strangers (except for the children, who look remarkably like each other, and remarkably unlike either parent). The son falsettos an instantly forgettable song (said in the credits to have been written by him) that is obviously supposed to be cute, but was probably left in to save egos.

(You probably remember that Cates was in Fast Times in Ridgemont High with Leigh. The film, in fact, seems to be a reunion of sorts. Most of the actresses were in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle with Leigh, as well. And Leigh's own dog plays the couple's dog, Otis. I don't know if Cumming brought any friends of his to this "Party," other than Leigh, of course.)

All the different guests, including Leigh's current director (John C. Reilly) and his wife, the couple's tax attorney (there for no other reasons than to make sure they sign their forms and to call another guest a body part vulgarity during a particularly tense game of charades) and his wife, Cumming's best friend Jennifer Beals, and the aforementioned Paltrow finally arrive and everyone is uncomfortable for a while.

This mood continues through a lot of drug-induced behavior which, I have to say, did not do much to change my opinion against recreational drug use, even though everyone looked as if they were having a great time.

Surprisingly, this mishmash of tensions and personality quirks works to make The Anniversary Party a really entertaining film. And, though a little heavy for my general taste, I would definitely watch it again. Each character is different and each personality shines through. The directors made the perfect choices in actors (including themselves) for the parts, including some unexpected ones, but the entire cast is outstanding. The writing is superb as well, and even through the script seems to be full of contrived causes for more tension, they all combine well.

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