The Anniversary Party is an acting movie more than it is anything else, and that distinction is both its downfall and the very thing that keeps it slightly interesting for its length. In it, we are invited to the eponymous gathering, which is being held to celebrate the six-year wedding anniversary of Joe (Alan Cumming) and Sally (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Joe is an established writer in the process of beginning the film adaptation for one of his novels, and Sally is an actress whose career has been hot for a number of years but has recently begun stalling. They cannot necessarily say that their marriage is completely blissful: problems have arisen due to infidelities (a couple inflamed by Joe’s bisexuality), career troubles, and distrust. But they’re trying to make it work, this anniversary party coming at the tail end of a prolonged separation. They figure honoring their relationship could do them some good.
But like any party only being attended by a handful of guests, many of them being old friends and secret lovers, there is a tension we quickly can see invisibly brewing in the air. This characteristic is especially noticeable after Joe invites Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow), a young actress, to the festivities. She is the woman, it seems, that will be playing the part based off Sally in Joe’s upcoming film. A smooth move by Joe, to be sure. And so, like we’d expect in a film made solely as an acting exercise, the party grows increasingly haughty, emotions becoming more and more blazing as they let themselves be known. This isn’t a party anyone’s going to forget about.
The Anniversary Party is also co-written, co-directed, and co-produced by leading stars Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, who decided to become co-filmmakers after working together and finding themselves to be an artistic partnership made in heaven. And for what The Anniversary Party is, their endeavor is mostly successful — the tension is believable, the dialogue cutting, the characters written with enough dimension to keep an ensemble of this size busy instead of wasted on meandering material. It’s the kind of film made by artists who want to try their hand at something more difficult than what they’re used to. So we’re relieved that Leigh and Cumming are adroit as filmmakers and not just actors looking to spend their time helming a vanity project.
Shot on digital and featuring a cast mostly comprised of old co-stars, the film is believable in its portrayal of an uncomfortable anniversary party. But while I’m in admiration of its simplicity, and the way it is a sturdy writing/directing debut for Leigh and Cumming, I never found myself considering The Anniversary Party to be anything more than a good excuse for everyone involved to get together and show off their chops — it’s a showcase more than it is something great, and that feeling is inescapable. Still, it accomplishes what it wants to achieve decently well, and Leigh and Cumming aren’t some wannabes unsure of what direction to take the film. C+