Most everyone, whether as kids, teens or adults, has been invited to and attended some party where they didn't know anyone other than the host. Unless you're a "professional" partygoer or chronic extrovert, such get-togethers are often boring or socially awkward and uncomfortable events where you feel like an outsider who's intruded upon a close-knit group of friends.
When faced with such a development, one can either tuck their tail between their legs and sheepishly sneak out, or observe the people and make something of a game out of studying them and their interaction with others.
Co-writers and directors Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming perfectly capture and re-create those feelings and reactions in their first feature film behind the camera, "The Anniversary Party," in which they also co-star. Certain to draw comparisons to the ensemble-based works of Robert Altman ("The Player") and Paul Thomas Anderson ("Boogie Nights") and/or "The Big Chill" for its "sit around and discuss life" moments, the film puts the viewer into the position of the outsider guest who's thrust into this party of mostly close friends.
One's initial reaction - much like in any large ensemble piece - will probably be wondering who all these people are and trying to keep them, their names and relations to the others straight. Just as the voyeuristic, fly on the wall approach begins to wear thin, however, Leigh and Cumming then allow us to start learning more about the characters, their little idiosyncrasies or secrets, and how they all fit together.
Although there's no neat and tidy jigsaw puzzle conclusion and many of the characters and their storylines are ultimately paper thin and/or superfluous, the effect that the novice filmmakers create works moderately well (particularly showing how character are more interested in or concerned about their dogs than other people), even if the overall "message" isn't as deep or profound as they probably intended or viewers will be expecting.
Their story spans just one day somewhere in the Los Angeles environs, where those in the entertainment industry and their spouses, friends and others have gathered for the titular event as pertaining to the characters played by Leigh ("eXistenZ," "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle") and Cummings ("Spy Kids," "Josie and the Pussycats").
It doesn't take a rocket scientist, or film critic for that matter, to recognize some of the points that are trying to be made. Among them is that relationships take work and not everything always turns out hunky dory as in most "feel good" films, and that those in the film industry are just as fallible as the rest of us mere mortals.
That said, the film is more like an introductory sociology class/field trip than an engrossing, in-depth examination of relationships, marital and otherwise. We watch and observe the various interactions - and laugh or cringe at some of what occurs, develops or is revealed - but little beyond that immediately involving the "celebratory" couple has any weight to it.
In fact, the filmmakers resort to having the various characters partake in a mass taking of ecstasy to stir and/or loosen things up. While that may naturally fit in with the location and type of party portrayed here, it feels like a bit of a desperate attempt to enliven the proceedings. They also use some of the many characters as something of an updated version of the traditional Greek chorus that's present to dispense "wisdom" and general information to the main characters and audience, and/or as vessels of temptation.
Among the former are Phoebe Cates ("Princess Caraboo," the "Gremlins" films) and Jane Adams ("Happiness," "Wonder Boys") whose characters are present to show Leigh's character - who's believed by others of wanting to start a family - the downsides of that. Interestingly enough, and beyond being reunited with Leigh after their stint in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," Cates plays a character not unlike herself (a woman who leaves the film industry to raise a family who, not coincidentally, all appear in this film with her).
Meanwhile, hubby Kevin Kline ("In & Out," "Dave") and John C. Reilly ("The Perfect Storm," "Magnolia") do somewhat of the same in regards to Joe's first foray into moviemaking. They and others, including Denis O'Hare ("Sweet and Lowdown") and Mina Badie ("Georgia," "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle") as the litigious and cold to the touch neighbors, also exhibit various stages of interpersonal relationships, but their presence, while congruous to the party element of the plot in a physical sense, occasionally feels a bit too forced in a thematic one.
Although the various developments occasionally border on the melodramatic - particularly in regards to Leigh and Cumming's late in the game theatrics - the filmmakers thankfully avoid - at least up until that point - any sort of cringe-inducing soap opera histrionics that easily could have gotten out of hand.
Overall, the performances from the cast that also includes Gwyneth Paltrow ("Bounce," "Duets"), Parker Posey ("Josie and the Pussycats," "The House of Yes") and Jennifer Beals ("The Last Days of Disco," "Flashdance") are generally good, and the star appeal certainly makes the film easy enough to sit through.
Shot in just 19 days on digital video (rather than film), the picture does have somewhat of a low-budget, indie film feel to it, but never comes off as amateurish from a technical perspective.
Nothing tremendous but interesting and entertaining enough for the sort of viewers the film's intended for, the picture could have used a tighter and more defined script. The ending is a bit rough, and while some may like the fact that not everything is resolved in some tidy little package with a pretty bow on the top, a big portion of the finale involves the actions of a character we never meet, and thus the impact of what they do doesn't have much effect on the viewer. Instead, it just comes out of the blue, adding a bit more melodrama to the proceedings than is really needed.
The film is also uneven at times and doesn't have the depth or emotional resonance of a picture such as "The Big Chill," mainly because we never feel for the characters. Instead, we watch them with little more than moderate fascination, never fully sympathizing or empathizing with them. Yet, the filmmakers' ability to thrust us into their characters' party and world like an unwelcome guest is effective and allows us to peer, for an ever so short time, into what makes some of them tick. Far from perfect but clearly an interesting slice of life picture, "The Anniversary Party" rates as a 5 out of 10.