The Anniversary Party (2001)

A review by Jeffrey Overstreet
Writer / Director – Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming
Director of photography – John Bailey
Editor – Carol Littleton and Suzanne Spangler
Music – Michael Penn
Producers – Joanne Sellar, Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh
Fine Line Features. 115 minutes. Rated R for profanity and sexual situations.
STARRING: Alan Cumming (Joe Therrian), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Sally Therrian), John Benjamin Hickey (Jerry Adams), Parker Posey (Judy Adams), Phoebe Cates (Sophia Gold), Kevin Kline (Cal Gold), Owen Kline (Jack Gold), Greta Kline (Evie Gold), Mina Badie (Monica Rose), Jane Adams (Clair Forsyth), John C. Reilly (Mac Forsyth), Jennifer Beals (Gina Taylor), Gwyneth Paltrow (Skye Davidson), Denis O’Hare (Ryan Rose), Levi Panes (Michael Panes) and Karen Kilgariff (Karen).

The Anniversary Party portrays a complicated collision of misguided lives in Hollywood.

Sally (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a starlet passing her prime, and her husband, an acclaimed novelist and soon-to-be director, throw a party to celebrate their marriage even as it teeters on the brink of disaster.

The friends (and enemies) at the party are not much help, bringing their own tangles of depression, anger, dishonesty, and selfishness through the door. Everyone is groping for something that will bring peace, or at least a short spell of blissful denial and escapism.

One is a new mother, who seems completely out of place at a Hollywood party now that she has a child to care for back home; she’s become addicted to pregnancy-related drugs merely to calm her nerves as the awesome responsibility of motherhood becomes clear to her.

Another (John C. Reilly) is a movie director who can’t sit still at the party, so he disappears into a back room to watch the dailies of his new film and berate himself for his own mediocrity. The uptight neighbors show up at the party, and it takes only moments before they are arguing about whose dog keeps the neighborhood awake at night.

Over the course of the evening, the uptight will loosen up with the help of the drug Ecstasy. In fact, the movie doesn’t condescend to remind us of the obvious dangers of the drug. Instead, the drug does something far more dangerous; it erases inhibitions and all sense of appropriateness, so that they start telling each other the truth for a change. Once the truth is set free, all manner of emotional damage is done, and no one will ever be the same.

The film’s digital video presentation gives it a home movie feel, yet never makes you dizzy with wild camera movement.

But if the camerawork doesn’t make you dizzy, the sheer number of characters in this house might.

Audiences will probably be fascinated by these strange, eccentric people as though watching exotic animals in a foreign environment.  The rich and famous at the party are so pampered by their luxuries and their pills that they are in denial of their deeper needs, and will only realize it when they are severely shocked. Yet, under the makeup and the bruises, you can see the hearts of engaging, beautiful people, capable of love and worth loving. I found it compelling to see how, even without a good example among them, without one single person that might minister to their real needs, they all are brought to see something of the light merely by seeing the devastation that they have wrought. All manner of wealth and creature comforts have failed to help these characters in coping with life. If anything, their opulent lives have only served to further separate them from each other.

Is there any hope for them? Are there any glimmers of real love left in their hearts? While viewers may agree that this party is hard to enjoy, they’ll likely find it fascinating to search for these characters’ hearts under the layers of makeup, denial, disguise, excuses, fantasies, and ego. You just might catch fragments of the Answer. The one complete family at the party – played by the real-life family of Kevin Kline, Phoebe Cates, and their children – exhibit tenderness toward one another, in spite of their flaws and blind spots. This tenderness and balance seems missing from the other partygoers.

Sometimes you have to lose love, or witness it flourishing in the lives of others, before you can recognize that you need it more than anything.

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.


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