after seeing ethan hawke's as-tonishingly undistinguished Chelsea Walls in the Director's Fortnight at Cannes, I approached The Anniversary Party with some trepidation. Despite my long and unstinting admiration for Jennifer Jason Leigh as an actor, there's something about films directed by actors, especially those also written and starred in by their directors (one of whom, in this case, has also actually worked in a Dogme movie).Ignoring for the moment such actor-auteurs as Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford, who have directorial careers, actors' films tend to err on the side of emotional meltdown, with casts gathered from the actor's address book and promised a tantrum a reel, all in the service of truth.
Add to that mix that this is yet another film shot on digital video, and you can understand my fear.
That said, The Anniversary Party is much better than one would expect, although it does tend to adhere to the pattern mentioned above.
Leigh and Alan Cumming, who co-wrote and co-directed, play a Hollywood couple celebrating their sixth anniversary after a rocky year by having their friends over for a party.
Secrets are revealed, drugs are taken and insecurities probed, and Leigh, Cumming, Jane Adams and John C. Reilly all get huge emotional scenes. Kevin Kline, Gwyneth Paltrow and Phoebe Cates are the comic relief.
The difference between this film and most Dogme-ish DV films is that Leigh and Cumming are smart enough to understand the dirty little secret of digital video. It's a medium that eats light, the more the better, so they hired a cinematographer -- John Bailey, of The Big Chill and As Good As It Gets -- to light the film as if people might actually want to see what's going on.
It may be the best-looking digital video film I've seen since Breaking The Waves -- and unlike Von Trier's film, it won't induce motion sickness. Of course, the two DV films I saw right before it were The Centre Of the World and Chelsea Walls, both of which are so studiously underlit that they've turned to mush in the transfer to film.
I'd recommend The Anniversary Party to anyone who likes these actors. They do some very nice work, particularly Jennifer Beals as the family's best single friend and, unexpectedly, Cates.
THE ANNIVERSARY PARTY written and directed by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, with Leigh, Cumming, Kevin Kline, Gwyneth Paltrow, Phoebe Cates, Jennifer Beals and Parker Posey. 115 minutes. A Fine Line production. An Odeon Films release. Opens Friday (June 15). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 90. Rating: NNN