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See how happy we are?

by Kaori Shoji

The Anniversary Party

Rating: * * * *
Director: Jennifer Jason Leigh / Alan Cumming
Running time: 115 minutes
Language: English
Opens Nov.23 at Chanter Cine Theater

I used to feel that one of the few advantages of growing up in Japan was the absence of the school prom. A prom-free adolescence made up for a lot of things. Now, having seen “The Anniversary Party,” I would like to add the absence of wedding anniversary parties to the list of things to be thankful for. No party, so no pre-party jitters or post-party trauma. Ah, peace.

News photoAlan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh in their directorial debut, “The Anniversary”

“The Anniversary Party” is a casual but probing look into the dynamics of the Tired Marriage. Friends gather together to celebrate a sixth wedding anniversary, and during the booze and Ecstasy-induced euphoria that defines the evening, their desires become unmasked, animosities reveal themselves and weaknesses are laid bare.

This is a debut feature from a duo who has always been on the other side of the camera — Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming sparked on the idea to write, direct and star in their own movie over coffee in Leigh’s kitchen. They wrote the script, assembled a cast comprising their close celebrity friends and shot the whole thing in 19 days. The result is jagged, raw and unnerving — a work of utter simplicity and in-your-face honesty.

Sally (Leigh) and Joe (Cumming) are a Beverly Hills couple who are about to celebrate their sixth anniversary. Sally is a big-time Hollywood actress, and Joe is a prizewinning novelist about to direct his first movie. Sally had thought she was perfect to play the heroine, but Joe has already cast the young, up-and-coming Skye (Gwyneth Paltrow) for the part and springs the news on his wife before getting ready for the party.

Invited are their Hollywood friends and a couple who live next door who have been complaining about Joe’s dog and thus need to be placated. Sally is happy to deal with actress Clair (Jane Adams) and director-husband Mac (John C. Reilly), or ex-actress Sophia (Phoebe Cates) and current actor-husband Cal (Kevin Kline). But when it comes to the young and glamorous Skye or Joe’s beautiful “best friend” Gina (Jennifer Beals), Sally loses control and cannot pull off the gracious hostess bit. Skye is blissfully unaware of Sally’s pain; Gina is perfectly aware and plays with it. As for Joe, he is his usual seductive and charming self, mesmerizing even the neighbor’s wife (Mina Badie) into a state of total worship.

As the evening progresses, Skye presents the couple with a surprise gift: an envelope full of Ecstasy tablets. Everyone is delighted, and from then on they become extremely casual with each other. There’s skinny-dipping in the pool, illicit making-out in a bedroom, long tearful confessions while stretched out on the kitchen floor. Most of the lines in this segment are obviously ad-libbed, and in an especially jarring scene, Sophia cries to Sally that she envies the latter’s state of childlessness. “When you have kids, you can’t just die,” she moans. “Suicide is no longer an option! Isn’t that terrible?”

Cates is Kline’s real-life wife, and their two young children also appear in this work, which lends a surrealness to the proceedings. While she cries, her husband sits by the pool with Joe and comments on the virtues of Skye’s chest — “Hmmmm. Nice tits.”

What surfaces from the pseudo-infidelities and fits of insecurities is the tremendous pressure (which is part-and-parcel of anniversary parties) exerted on all married couples on the premises to appear happy and contented and totally in love. Leigh and Cumming have written in a lot of P.D.A. (public display of affection) scenes, but they balance these with others like the one where Sally suddenly decides to change out of her cocktail dress and into tight jeans (which is what Skye is wearing), then subtly parade herself in front of Joe. He doesn’t notice.

Meanwhile, Clair has just had a baby and is harassed and hopping on antidepressants — she feels the need to change out of her clothes and into Sally’s white Galliano dress, twirling a wine glass in her hand. Her husband greets her with a kiss and “Hi, honey!” But he doesn’t notice. And you’ll cringe when a singer-friend of Sally’s presents the couple with an anniversary song that goes: “So tell us your secret/Do you still make love?/How many times a week?/Is it a real chore?/Is it a real bore?” Ouch.

In Japan, marriage is viewed more or less as a state of constant pain, so why call your friends to celebrate? Thus, couples are not only liberated from P.D.A, they’re practically expected to put each other down in front of their friends, then quietly go home. Appalling? Maybe so. But hey, at least we don’t have to listen to any songs.