Now here's a tricky one. Start with a busload of familiar and appealing stars, shacked up together for a couple of weeks in a house in the Hollywood Hills. Assign them their mission: to emulate themselves -- sort of -- while dutifully reminding us that human relationships can be complicated. Then set the tone (Celebrity meets The Celebration, only tidier), distribute assorted motivations (wistfulness, emptiness, general scatterbrainedness), and capture the whole shebang on fairly benign digital video. Cut it all together to represent a night that's half cathartic confessional, half talent showcase, and if the distributors balk, you can always sell the thing to the Discovery Channel as an ethnological study of Southern California's mysterious Indulgente tribe.
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 that's 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 whereas 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 a pet's delicate psyche -- who focus upon the mutt as a gravitational center for their relationship -- 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 (who, for the record, receives billing above most of the A-listers), 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 housecleaners (Norizzela Monterroso, Clara Demadrano), and then there's the little matter of hosting their friends and neighbors 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 ("You didn't kiss anyone else's knees, did you?" she asks him. "No," he cautiously replies. "Did you?"). 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 such as L.A. Story and The Player, and it works just as well here. 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 rather theatrical children (Owen and Greta Kline). Mac Forsyth (John C. Reilly) is directing Sally and Cal in a mediocre new movie, and 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, booze goes down, tempers flare up and clothes come off, we are indeed given very strong impressions of the lives at hand. Despite the unorthodox methods of production (which were, no doubt, liberating for this ensemble), pros are pros, and for every scene that feels like a howler in 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, and it feels like eons and no time at all since Cates counseled Leigh in Fast Times at Ridgemont High almost 20 years ago. The comfort level among the actors boosts the movie's veracity tremendously.
As is often the case when actors take the helm, however, any and all irony is cast aside in favor of true and defining moments, and here this often equals queasiness. Despite the unfortunate look-at-us! tone of the cute moments and melodrama, however, at least this isn't Dead Again. (It's actually a high compliment to say it's closer to Peter's Friends.) Usually, all it takes is 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. Comedienne Mary-Lynn Rajskub is a hoot as -- what else -- the Therrians' friend Mary-Lynn. And Kline helps himself to some wacky one-liners ("Don't do this natural-childbirth stuff -- it's just not natural!")
Above and 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 inquisitive and uptight "normal people" invited specifically to neutralize their ongoing battle over Otis' barking. Adding zest is Joe's former flame Gina (Jennifer Beals) and Sally's nebbishy friend Panes (Michael Panes), who's a dead ringer for Peter Sellers. And topping the bill is Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow), a ditzy superstar set to play Sally in Joe's adaptation of his autobiographical novel.
Leigh and Cumming step into this project with confidence in all capacities, and one certainly can't say that the production -- with original music by Michael Penn and archive tracks compiled by recording artist E -- wants for hipness. What it lacks, however, is perspective; the creators are just too close to their material, and these shorthand therapy sessions (he yells, she cries) 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.