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The Anniversary Party

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Aside from crummy picture quality, one of the major drawbacks of digital video is that its cheapness and flexibility make filmmaking too easy, encouraging conceptual laziness and self-indulgence more often than inspired experimentation. Shot in a single location over 19 days, writer-directors Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming's DV feature The Anniversary Party seems cobbled together like a bachelor's stir fry, an arbitrary collection of name actors and manufactured crises cooked over hot gas. Not surprisingly, Leigh and Cumming show exceptional generosity to their cast, giving about a dozen members of an impressive ensemble enough space to show off their range while commenting on the Hollywood lifestyle. At its best, The Anniversary Party works as an extension of the star-studded soiree in Robert Altman's The Player, deftly weaving in and out of conversations with lively snippets of caught humor and only the muted suggestion of tension under the surface. But when the inevitable reckoning arrives, courtesy of a fistful of Ecstasy, the directors' generosity turns on itself, spinning off into more histrionic, actorly scenes than the film (or any party) can bear. The big problem may be the guest list. For the sixth anniversary of a marriage destabilized by numerous affairs and bouts with drug addiction, Leigh and Cumming invite a hornet's nest of old lovers, hated neighbors, head cases, and alcoholics. Described as a fragile, possessive neurotic and "a sexually ambivalent man-child," respectively, Leigh is an accomplished actress who worries about her age and Cumming stokes her fears by casting ditzy ingenue Gwyneth Paltrow in the film version of his semi-autobiographical novel. In addition to Paltrow, other ostensible friends and well-wishers include a narcissistic actor (Kevin Kline), his loose-tongued wife (Phoebe Cates), and their accessorized children; a film director (John C. Reilly) and his pill-popping wife (Jane Adams), who worries hysterically about their newborn baby; neighbors (Denis O'Hare and Mina Badie) at war over the incessantly barking family dog; and the couple's conspicuously intimate friends (Jennifer Beals and Michael Panes). Though inspired in part by Leigh's experience on the Dogma film The King Is Alive, The Anniversary Party lifts its best scene—a series of revelatory toasts in honor of the unhappy couple—from Dogma 1: The Celebration, then slides rapidly downhill once Ecstasy is added to the mix. For dramatic purposes, the drug seems only slightly less potent than a puff in Reefer Madness, triggering a dreary parade of Cassavetes-style shouting matches, bedroom dalliances, one near-death experience, and an out-of-the-blue tragedy. Only in Hollywood could a lifetime's worth of incident get squeezed into the hours before sunrise.