While Anniversary Party's concept -- of a bunch of actor friends like Leigh, Cumming, Parker Posey, Jennifer Beals and Kevin Kline all "playing" actor friends -- can be a distracting meta-conceit, the film succeeds in fits and starts in its picture of the real-life fault-lines running beneath the glamorous facade. And the neuroses that plague these characters (Phoebe Cates has given up her career to raise children; Leigh is a tormented actress attracted to edgy, dark characters; Kevin Kline is a silly, pompous boob) are close enough to the actors' own life circumstances or actorly personas to suggest there is more than a grain of truth at work here. For that reason alone, Anniversary Party is enjoyable keyhole cinema with its vision of the highs and lows of these particular actors' lives.
Joe (Cumming) and Sally (Leigh) are celebrating their anniversary in the wake of a number of plot-thickening traumas. The couple has just recently reconciled and are trying to have a baby. Meanwhile, flaky Brit writer/director Joe is already testing their freshly patched bond by flirting with the sexy young star (Gwyneth Paltrow) from his first film.
Trip-wired with a half-dozen couples all vested with their own "issues," Anniversary Party is rigged to self-destruct, and soon does. The party quickly moves from a vicious round of charades to Ecstasy to sexual philandering to near-deaths and then an actual one. Some fine writing and scenes that often cut to the heart of a common precipice (e.g. the transition from coupledom to babymaking) often are diminished, however, by the tendency of the film to spell out every psychodrama immediately.
Rather than establishing character, Anniversary Party establishes anxiety. Clair Forsyth (Jane Adams) is a neurotic new mother trying to balance the narcissism of an acting career and the self-sacrifice of motherhood. Her husband Mac Forsyth (John C. Reilly) is a director whose film is slipping into "bomb" territory. Sophia Gold (Phoebe Cates) is a supposedly perfect, serene, self-sacrificing mother with her own anxieties about maternal responsibility.
At times it's unclear whether these characters are as close to the bone as they seem. Viewers may wonder if Leigh and Cumming's take on Herculean Hollywood egos is document or farce. Are we meant to pity their inability to make their relationship work, or only drop our jaws in amazement at their epic narcissism expressed in everything from their dismissive treatment of their Mexican help to their oppressively decorated pad where every wall is hung with arty photographs of their coupledom? This metaphorical hall of mirrors suggests that while Sally and Joe have taken the time to mythologize their relationship, they haven't done the actual work of making it live up to the glamorous legend.
While this brand of edge-of-the-Earth, grandiose psychodrama often can feel like Altman in his more recent misanthropic Short Cuts mode, there also are scenes of haunting truthfulness, like Sophia spilling her guts to Sally about the demands of motherhood and her own fears about Joe's suitability as a father. Anniversary Party is a fascinating zeitgeist piece, about the fear of parenthood, the precariousness of work, the difficulties of marriage.
And the film works on another level too, offering insight into the neuroses-inducing fishbowl of the actor's life. While Hollywood parodies like The Player offer the not-exactly-brilliant observation that Hollywood is a sham, filled with plastic people, Anniversary Party offers a more noteworthy and human glimpse into the toll of laboring in a dream factory, where real problems are not allowed to intrude.
Anniversary Party is the kind of film so many creative people at some point no doubt fantasize about making: one that captures, like Slacker or sex, lies, & videotape, the idiosyncrasies and fears tormenting the Peter Pan generation. As Cal observes, "Grown-ups don't do this for a living." Though Cal is talking about the acting life, his comment has broader implications.
By setting Anniversary Party amidst the never-grow-up narcissism of the L.A. actor set, the film addresses a larger cultural phenomenon, of a generation closing in on marriage and child-bearing age, who are faced with so many options and self-doubts and an analytical mindset, they exist in a state of entropy. More sad than scathing, Anniversary Party is a study of people so caught-up in the drama of their problems they can't get on with their lives.