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Read past reviews by the Film Gang

The Anniversary Party
Reviewed by Carla Freccero

Now playing at the Nickleodeon in Santa Cruz, The Anniversary Party is directed by Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh, who also star as the couple—Sally and Joe—that holds a 6th year anniversary party celebrating renewed commitment after a recent separation.  The movie seems like a combination of The Big Chill and Peter’s Friends updated and, on the other hand, a Robert Altman film, that is, a star vehicle.  Only these stars are mostly young folk, and some are very famous and some are not.  The oldest (perhaps) of them, Kevin Kline, is predictably fabulous as actor Cal Gold.  And Jennifer Beals, as Gina Taylor, has grown into a magnificently beautiful woman since her movie dancing days, though unfortunately her acting has not improved.    

Sally and Joe live in Beverly Hills; Sally is an (over-the-hill, it is suggested) actress and Joe is a novelist cum screenwriter/director who is about to direct the film adaptation of his novel. Their friends, with the exception of the neighbors, are also actors, directors, writers—and one financial manager.  The movie is social satire and has some smart and savvy self-reflexivity since, of course, those who wrote, directed and star in it belong to the Hollywood milieu being satirized.  It’s a character study and a group portrait, its success dependent on the wittiness and timing of the lines rather than the plot itself.  And although I thought it was well-acted and fulfilled all these requirements, I have to say that for the most part these are not great actors and so it was a little hard to be completely absorbed by their performances.  Most of the women look the same, and most of the men are dull, even the ones, like Joe, who are supposed to be lively.  Or maybe that’s exactly the effect the movie was trying to have.  The emotional energies run from superficial sociality to downright viciousness, and I found myself catching my breath at the sheer nastiness of some of the things these folks say to each other.

There is some drama of course.  At a certain point, the group does XTC and then the party gets chaotic and rushes to its (too numerous) climaxes.  Too many sort of and very tragic things happen in the last ten minutes and one wonders why—is this a joke about movies like The Big Chill, that depend on one tragic event to create the pretext for a character study?  Or maybe about Peter’s Friends, where nearly everyone has a tragedy.  As it was, it felt like we didn’t need so many to make the point, to heighten the intensity, and to turn fatuous folks into people worthy of empathy.  

The films this one models itself after also use the group portrait and tragic pretext to comment on their historical times (the war in Vietnam, the AIDS crisis), and that is where this one seems less certain, less pointed in its message:  yes, there’s too much money around, and Hollywood is a kind of cesspool, and women of the middle and upper- middle classes are having babies at a later age and obsessing terribly about them, and XTC is the drug that makes you love not LSD, and well, we are in a time of decadence and decay.  Yet there is something else in this movie that seems to point beyond itself and that, ironically, speaks to these most recent times, although it was made long before.  Joe and Sally have two Latina maids, one named, the other not. This in itself is not novel, it’s another cliché about the late twentieth-century middle class.  But the woman’s name is . . . America.  Much is made of this in the film, with the actors singing songs and joking about that very special thing that seems to be in a name, that name.  But there is something even more uncanny:  at least twice the camera pauses on a poster on the wall.  The words on the poster?  God (trademark) Bless (trademark) America (trademark).  People seem to be struggling to live their lives, struggling to be real, but what The Anniversary Party quietly hints is that they are mere shadowy products of the trademarks—Hollywood, America, and perhaps even God.  Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.

Copyright Carla Freccero 2001