New Line // 2001 // 115 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dezhda Mountz (Retired) // December 21st, 2001
It's not a party until something gets broken.
Partly inspired by the low-budget digital movement Dogma '95, actress Jennifer Jason Leigh had an idea: make a digital movie with all her friends, on a low budget and equally skinny shooting schedule. She and friend Alan Cumming -- castmates from their run in Cabaret in New York City -- sat down at her kitchen table and, in like-mindedness, quickly wrote the script for The Anniversary Party. The result, cast with their friends, showcases some of the best acting all around in any movie of recent memory and a beautiful look that defies anyone's expectations of digital camerawork.
Sally Nash (Leigh) and her novelist husband Joe Therrian (Cummings) recently got back together after months apart. Joe cheated on her, she mourned her lagging reputation as a solid Hollywood actress. Together again, they invite their friends, who represent Hollywood's elite, and two outsiders -- the next door neighbors -- for a memorable, tumultuous night at The Anniversary Party.
The ensemble cast of The Anniversary Party could have easily read the phone book and still have been delightful. Realistic portrayals based on the people they actually are -- and based on those they know -- make this a great inside peek into the comedic and often sad world of Hollywood's heavy hitters.
The day starts off well enough, with Joe and Sally practicing yoga with their teacher, and their maids -- including the novice Norizzela Monterroso as America -- doing all the preparation for the party. We can see Sally's longing for Joe from the first moments of the film, and the pain in her eyes when he doesn't seem to return it.
Guests stream in one by one -- Sally's nervous business managers (John Benjamin Hickey and Parker Posey), diet-pilled new mother Clair (Jane Adams) and her lover, director Mac (John C. Reilly), her best friend Levi Panes (writer Michael Panes in his first film -- and a delightful presence). Some guests, like the litigious neighbors the Roses (Mina Badie and Denis O'Hare), who complain incessantly about Sally's dog, aren't so welcome. More contentious a visitor is Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow), the lithe star of Joe's feature film adaptation of his novel. She is, in fact, playing the role that was based on Sally -- the role Sally had her heart set on.
Skye's presence is a cutting aspect to this film, a reminder of Joe's other betrayals to Sally. But all is kept under wraps, and startling realizations are made in whispers. For example, an ex-lover of Joe's (Matt McGrath as Jeffrey) makes his toast to the couple, and notes that Sally will make a great star in Joe's film. Leigh's face fills with pain, and the moment is quietly devastating.
Too quiet a film? Almost, until Skye (Paltrow) breaks out the ecstasy, her gift to the couple. Joe, elated, shares it with all his friends, and the result is the most realistic portrayal of ecstasy-addled folk I've seen on film. Mrs. Rose tries to get her sober husband to loosen up, and watches the celebrity druggies take their clothes off, dance, and otherwise act out. She is the curious outsider, who realizes that famous people have problems, too -- perhaps even more so than us "civilians."
As their guests roll on ecstasy with precarious results, Joe and Sally's delicate reunion unravels as the drug gets the better of him. An explosive admission by her threatens to rip their commitment apart for good. Like many good movies, the ending is not sealed shut, but it does mean more challenges for this couple, and proves its point: we're all human -- but fame and fortune sometimes makes you forget that.
By the end of the long, long night, flirtations have deepened, betrayals heightened, and nervous breakdowns have occurred. The fine acting and cool camera work enhance the discoveries made by those attending The Anniversary Party.
Though the writing is fairly well paced, Sally's big admittance at the end of the film is ripped off from several other relationship movies. However, this flaw can be easily overlooked thanks to the film's unique insight into the upper crusts' lives -- something few movies have really done well.
Equally fascinating are the special features. A short documentary made for the Sundance Channel, with interviews by the director of photography John Bailey, editor Carol Littleton, and Cummings and Leigh takes viewers into an inside peek at the making. It showcases how the writing, directing, editing and camerawork blended perfectly.
A commentary track by Cummings and Leigh is equally incisive, such as Cumming's statement that in Hollywood, private yoga is akin to ordering spirituality to your door like a pizza; Leigh's remarks about the brilliant acting, particularly a wonderful moment of Jane Adams'; and insights into the editing and writing.
The Anniversary Party is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The picture is stunning. I had to double check if my memory served me correctly -- is this indeed a digital film? Watching the raw footage from the documentary confirms this of course, but the transfer to film -- thanks to John Bailey's expertise -- is stunning, perfectly film like, and cost-effective. This is a landmark production that will convince many doubters of digital filmmaking. However, the transfer to DVD has an odd flaw -- twice in the film, the tint changed, momentarily, to a greenish color. Hopefully New Line will catch this for reissues. Colors were akin to the theatrical version -- cool, subdued, but true -- and sound, not necessarily an important aspect of the film, was still well mixed, with background and dialogue blended nicely with the great soundtrack.
What makes this a find for DVD lovers are the extras, which add so much insight to the film, they're just as entertaining to watch.
For a showcase of America's finest actors as well as a cunning and arresting statement of the lives of "beautiful people," The Anniversary Party is a great eye-opener and a testament to the ease and beauty of digital video.
Free to go and welcome to come back!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "Anatomy of a Scene" Documentary
* Director Commentary
* Official Site