the descendants (alexander payne, 2011)
music friday: janet jackson, "miss you much"

revisit: the anniversary party (alan cumming and jennifer jason leigh, 2001)

When I made up my Fave Fifty Films for Facebook a couple of years ago, The Anniversary Party just missed the final cut (I had it at #61). I watched it again for the first time in … well, I’d only seen it once, it was awhile ago. And as I was watching it, I couldn’t figure out why I had ever thought this was my 61st-favorite movie of all time. But by the end of the film, I had a better understanding of my affection. I don’t think it would make a current Top 61, but the cumulative power is impressive, and The Anniversary Party is very successful within the rather limited framework in which it operates.

The genesis of The Anniversary Party is worthy of note, especially since I’m guessing most people have never even heard of it (I believe it cost $3.5 million; it grossed just $5 million worldwide). Leigh and Cumming met when starring together on Broadway in a revival of Cabaret. Over the course of seven months, they became great friends, and decided to make a movie together (they both co-wrote and co-directed The Anniversary Party). Leigh had just finished making the Dogme movie The King Is Alive, and was excited about the possibilities of digital video. They got a top cinematographer (John Bailey) who wanted to try out the then-new medium, and wrote a script about a novelist and an actress who throw themselves an anniversary party and invite their closest friends. Leigh and Cumming wrote the various characters with specific actors in mind … all of them friends or relations of the two. This resulted in a tremendous cast for such a low-budget film. Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates played an actor and his wife, a former actress who retired to raise their two kids (the basically true story of Kline and Cates … their two kids played the characters’ two kids in the movie). Cates had been friends with Leigh since Fast Times at Ridgemont High. There is also Parker Posey and Denis O’Hare and Jane Adams and Gwyneth Paltrow and more, who had all worked with Cumming and/or Leigh in the past. The film is scripted, with the exception of one scene where the various guests offer toasts to the couple (in that case, each character wrote their own toasts). The entire picture was filmed in 19 days, which was made possible in part by the use of digital video, and in part because the one set (a big house in the Hollywood Hills) kept things simple. All of this results in a film that feels quite “natural”, even as we watch the pseudo-biographical stories of actors playing actors.

I am well aware this all sounds like a self-indulgent mess, like a less ironic, more serious This Is the End. What helps the film is that Cumming and Leigh have not constructed an insular world, as much as it might seem that way at first glance. The cast and crew worked well together, but this wasn’t some Rat Pack movie from the 60s. Cumming and Leigh wanted to give their fellow actors a chance to shine … not unexpected, given they are actors, themselves. The cast is so good, the parts are so tuned in to the actors, that the opposite of insularity occurs: we are drawn into the lives of the characters.

It is true that these characters are movie stars, that their troubles would seem to be of little interest to us. But “stars” is a relative term … these are working artists, not super-rich people … and their problems aren’t a lot different from those we in the audience experience.

And did I mention how great the acting is? Hard to single anyone out … John C. Reilly is predictably excellent, and Phoebe Cates, returning to the screen after a long layoff as a favor to her friend Leigh (she hasn’t made another film since this one), gets a frighteningly honest scene about parenthood, where she states that being a parent removes the option to commit suicide, because you owe it to your kids to stick around. Leigh has always been one our bravest actors … at times the rawness of her emotions get the best of us all. But here, she and Cumming get one let’s-have-it-all-out scene, and Cumming is wonderful, but he seems like an actor, while Leigh digs down into that place she has found in more than one movie, and you want to crawl into a hole to escape her emotional intensity.

What plot exists is formulaic, and really, this isn’t one of the 61 best movies ever. I had previously given it 9/10, but that’s excessive, I can see now. But I am definitely glad I finally caught up with it again, and it is easily deserving of at least an 8/10.

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