Indeed, The Anniversary Party, co-written and co-directed by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, goes to great lengths to inhabit an awkward space midway between a home movie and a conventional narrative. The two wrote all the roles -- including their own -- with their famous friends in mind, and while some don't even bother changing their names, others appear to be doing less actual acting than simply exaggerating aspects of their own personae. The effect is dizzying, for better and for worse. When it's all over, one is less compelled to applaud than to give each "character" a sympathetic hug.
The dog is the first tip-off. A couple obsessed with their pet's delicate psyche rarely epitomizes stability. No exception is the volatile marriage of Joe and Sally Therrian (Cumming and Leigh), which they're slowly piecing back together after a year of estrangement. When we first meet them, lying in bed with their troublesome hound Otis, the hack novelist and the ripening starlet have a busy day ahead. First, they have to work out with their private yoga instructor (Steven Freedman), then they have to be PC to their house cleaners, and then there's the little matter of hosting their friends for a night of emotional exhibitionism.
A moderate level of elitism pervades the lives of Joe and Sally, screwing up their value systems just enough that they know they crave their misplaced happiness. After five years on and one year off of marriage, they're bewildered about reconciliation, starting a family and various trespasses past. The only thing they know for sure is that their guests will be arriving soon, bearing both insouciance and insolence.
Almost everyone attending is a media person, so the movie offers plenty of the sort of knowing wink-wink done so well in films like L.A. Story and The Player. Cal and Sophia Gold (Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates) are, respectively, a charming and narcissistic actor and an actress who has stepped away from the business to raise their children. Mac Forsyth (John C. Reilly) is directing Sally and Cal in a mediocre new movie, while his wife Clair (Jane Adams) is attempting to continue her acting career despite coming apart at the seams with worry over their newborn son. Judy and Jerry Adams (Parker Posey and John Benjamin Hickey) are the Therrians' hilariously uppity business managers. And so on.
As the evening goes on, and as tempers flare up and clothes come off, we are given very strong impressions of the lives at hand. Despite the unorthodox methods of production, pros are pros, and for every scene that feels like a howler from an acting workshop, there's also a prickly exchange that delves right under the skin. "Did you notice how happy your husband was when the drugs were brought out?" Sophia pointedly asks her best friend Sally. The comfort level among the actors boosts the movie's veracity tremendously.
As is often the case when actors take the helm, however, all irony is cast aside in favor of true and defining moments, and here this often equals queasiness. Yet, despite the melodrama and the unfortunate look-at-us! tone of the cute moments, at least this isn't Dead Again. Usually, it takes only a sigh and a polite roll of the eyes to skirt embarrassment and move on to the next sequence, and the humor helps a lot.
Beyond that, the most revealing moments in The Anniversary Party are provoked not by the Therrians' professional peers but by more challenging characters. Most amusing -- and, later, touching -- are the irritable neighbors, Ryan and Monica Rose (Denis O'Hare and Mina Badie), two uptight "normal people" invited specifically to neutralize their ongoing battle over Otis's barking. Adding zest is Joe's former flame Gina (Jennifer Beals) and Sally's nebbishy friend Panes (Michael Panes). And topping the bill is Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow), a ditsy superstar set to play Sally in Joe's adaptation of his autobiographical novel.
Leigh and Cumming step into this project with confidence, and one certainly can't say that the production wants for hipness. What it lacks, however, is perspective; the creators are just too close to their material, and these shorthand therapy sessions offer precious little to engage anyone outside their clique. By the end, one feels strangely compassionate yet intellectually detached, as if the hugs and not the lauding were their goal all along.