Sally (Leigh) and Joe (Cumming), an actress and a novelist, have invited a few close friends over in honor of the special date. The event holds particular meaning because they were recently separated and have spent the past five months in therapy, cementing their commitment to each other.
Among the guests are Mac (John C. Reilly), the director of Sally's latest film, and his wife Claire (Jane Adams), who's doped up on diet pills and Xanax to get over the stress of leaving her newborn at home with a new sitter; Sally's co-star Cal (Kevin Kline) and his wife and two kids; the neighbors with whom they've been quarreling because of their dog; Joe's best friend Gina (Jennifer Beals), a photog; and Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow), the starlet who will be starring in Joe's directorial debut of the adaptation of his novel.
As each character is introduced, the dynamics of their complicated relationships with Sally and Joe begin to peek through the cracks in their faux happy-for-the-couple smiles and chitchat: Mac and Cal express concern to Joe that Sally is not her reliable self on the set; Gina's intimate portrait of the couple is perhaps too intimate for Sally's taste; and a well-meaning toast mistakenly assumes that Sally would be the star of Joe's first movie.
All of this takes time to reveal, and it's a full hour before the ante is upped: Skye's gift to the couple is the drug Ecstasy. Stripped of their inhibitions, the partiers confront each other with what they couldn't before--that Sally's best friend is skeptical of her plans to move to London and have kids for Joe's sake; that Mac is jealous of the casting of a star like Skye in Joe's first movie; and that perhaps Sally isn't ready to have kids yet--despite their plans--and maybe never will be.
Shot on digital video, "The Anniversary Party" occasionally feels like home video, but the medium lends intimacy to the picture, zeroing in on the couple while they lounge in bed and getting right in the closet with Sally as she rolls around deliriously in her clothes. Also, the less intrusive size of the equipment has allowed each actor, with the gross exception of Parker Posey and a few other barely seen supporters, to fully explore his or her character. Reilly, particularly, is subtle yet memorable as a husband who both adores and is embarrassed by his wife and as a director whose affection for his leading lady only deepens his frustration at not being able to draw a good performance from her.
Photography is a pervasive theme. Black-and-white still images adorn the walls throughout Sally and Joe's home, and the art form invades the film physically as well, as the revelers are frozen in time during a particularly spirited game of charades.
Story-wise, Cumming and Leigh cleverly drop clues with scant explanation (such as when Sally's business manager slides a book into her hands before the party), only to pick them up later, fully revealed. (It's their neighbor's novel--perhaps his seeing it on their bookshelf will go a long way toward avoiding a lawsuit over the dog.) This technique allows the plot to unravel naturally, eschewing the need for excessive backstory and engaging viewers as they mentally fit the pieces together.
The ending is a bit vague for a commercial audience: After the film's culminating, cruel confrontation, Sally and Joe are driven back together by tragedy. The implication is that this, too, they will weather and perhaps grow closer because of it. (It's in the aftermath that Sally asserts her role as Joe's wife to Gina for the first time.) But one can't help but wonder what will happen to them if and when they ever finish their conversation. Starring Jane Adams, Mina Badie, Jennifer Beals, Phoebe Cates, Alan Cumming, John Hickey, Kevin Kline, Denis O'Hare, Gwyneth Paltrow, Michael Panes, Parker Posey and John C. Reilly. Directed and written by Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Produced by Joanne Sellar, Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh. A Fine Line release. Comedy/drama. Rated R for language, nudity and drug use. Running time: 117 min