For our second review this week, Stevi Costa takes on this wonderful ensemble drama and considers veritas, authenticity, charades and whatever the hell happened to Gwyneth Paltrow’s face.
“We’re way past inappropriate.” – Joe
Before I sat down to re-view Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s The Anniversary Party this week, I actually had a long, late-night conversation about the film with one of our other re-viewers, Erik Jaccard, at a bar this past weekend. I’m often surprised when someone else knows the film because it was released at a time when independent cinema was just taking off in the face of, well, stuff like Pearl Harbor. 2001 was a big summer for me and independent films, and I remember that I would often sneak off to see movies that most teenagers would find strange. In fact, I’m pretty sure that shortly after seeing The Anniversary Party, my best friend and I went out on a double date where we got pizza and saw Monsoon Wedding whereas our classmates might be seeing . . . not that. So given the lack of interest in stuff like The Anniversary Party I experienced from peers when it first came out, I am genuinely surprised when I find someone else who not only has seen it, but also loves it. (Or, at the very least, thinks the Ecstasy Pool Party scene is awesome.)
While rewatching the film this week, I was trying really hard to think back to how I related to it when I was a teenager. It is an intensely adult film about professional and personal disappointments, how hard it is to hold a marriage together, and what you can salvage when things fall apart. What worked for me about it back then, and still does now, is that it makes each of those things deeply personal. As a viewer, you always have this feeling that you’re in the room with these people, and that’s not because Leigh and Cumming know how to use a camera to create that feeling. It’s because this is a rare film that’s actually written by actors, for actors. As such, it’s really a craft exercise for everyone in the film, and each of them (especially Leigh and Cumming) are able to make their roles feel so real because the writing allows the characters to be perhaps more real than we are used to seeing in cinema.
I very much find the writing of this film to be very intimate and it’s performed in a way that makes it seem more authentic than I feel about a lot of performances onscreen. It captures moments that feel small in a way that’s so inhabited by the actors that you can feel yourself or someone like you doing the same things: a passive-aggressive quip at a complaining neighbor, a chastising pat on the knee toward a friend you judge, a wince when asked about a tense situation. These small moments in the film create a sense of veritas throughout that makes everything at the party feel very unique and real. (It’s our trust in these small moments, I think, that allow the intense emotional scenes in the Canyon at the end of the film to play as raw and honest rather than a bunch of melodramatic screaming.) But the obvious irony of that is that the characters in this film are themselves wickedly inauthentic toward one another: Leigh’s Sally secretly hates Joe’s best friend (Jennifer Beals) and is hiding her abortion from her husband, Cumming’s Joe is a cheating, impish manchild who can’t be honest with his wife about why he won’t cast her in his movie for a part she believes is based on her, John C. Reilly’s Mac can’t critique his lead actress (Sally) and fears it will ruin his career over it, Mac’s wife (Jane Adams) is unable to cope with her newborn but refuses to admit she needs help, and so on. The film is a gloss on Hollywood falsities that plays out in real, brutal discourse that’s fascinating to watch — especially if you have an admiration for great acting.
I also admire that this film is a creative project, lovingly made by a group of friends. It’s common for groups of actors to work together, but that’s a fact that’s more common in comedy than drama. In drama, it’s more common to see a director-actor relationship that constructs certain performers as director’s trademarks (Depp-Burton collaborations, for instance — or Steve Buscemi in Coen Brothers films). But this film clusters around a group of actors with theatre training who thought, “You know, let’s just make a movie together. We’ve got a script, Sofia Coppola’s house, and 19 days to shoot on digital. Let’s do it.” I think the ease with which this cast fits together is another one of the reasons those small moments play so well. There’s a great degree of trust that goes into collaborative work, and the ease with which these actors play off of one another makes every scene in the film glide along.
I especially like the way Kevin Kline and Pheobe Cates’ tenderness toward one another and toward their children carries through on screen, especially in the dance Kline and his daughter perform as a tribute to Joe and Sally’s rekindled marriage. It reads as simultaneously impromptu and rehearsed, and fits the tribute scene beautifully. Those daddy-daughter dances are what Sally and Joe should look forward to in their marriage, if only the idea of having children weren’t the very thing hindering their ability to move past their devastating breakup. (In short: Joe wants them, Sally doesn’t.) I typically hate children in movies, but because of the environment that this film creates, I think both of the Kline children really perform their roles well and enhance Joe and Sally’s dilemma. My favorite thing about this film, which I still think of with surprising frequency, is the song Owen Kline sings for Joe and Sally when he enters the party: “Happy anniversary! / Here’s to Sally and Joe / We’re so glad you came home / Please don’t split up again / ‘Cause we like the food.” This little ditty appears rather early in the film and is one of our first signals that something isn’t and hasn’t been right in the Therrians’ marriage. But it’s played with such sweetness and innocence that you excuse its potential inappropriateness. It works to set the tone for so much of the film, until the point where those veneers really break down and things get way past inappropriate.
I’ve seen Denis O’Hare on Broadway back in 2003 where he was absolutely fabulous, affable and funny in Take Me Out, a show more people should see and do. But now I only think of him as Russell, the Vampire King of Mississippi, carrying around Talbot in that gorgeous crystal candy dish.
Haha! Palm Pilots!
My husband’s family is really serious about charades, and I can’t believe that the following line has never been yelled at a charades game I’ve participated in: “Will you just move on to the fucking second syllable, you stupid cunt!”
Things a costumer notices: when Sally is rolling hard during the pool party, she wanders into her closet and tries on a bunch of different outfits, eventually settling on a grey halter top and jeans . . . which is what her cinematic rival, Skye Davidson, is wearing.
Gwyneth Paltrow is a perfect choice to play a young ingénue in 2001. Her face is so round, soft and ethereally beautiful. Her countenance is easy and effortless. What the fuck happened to her? She’s so prim and hard-lined now, all angles and planes. No softness at all. What is it that makes such a radiant woman so hard? Is it babies? England? Chris Martin? Or is this the work of GOOP?