Unless a movie set in Hollywood is as good as "Sunset Boulevard" or "The Player," it's hard not to wish the filmmakers had chosen a more imaginative locale. The new Tinseltown comedy "The Anniversary Party" sometimes falls into that trap, although there are several moments when the filmmakers' temptation to stay at home seems justified.
Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming (who also teamed up on writing and directing the film) star as Sally and Joe Therrian, a showbiz couple who are about to celebrate six years of marriage. From early on, it's obvious the union hasn't been much of a party. Joe, a popular British writer getting ready to make a film directing debut, has a fairly sizable string of former (and possibly current) lovers.
Sally has a nagging feeling that her acting career is slipping because she's well past 30. Even before the shindig has started, there's some antagonism because Joe has just cast young starlet Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow) in a role he has based on Sally and has even invited the younger actress to the evening's celebration.
The party itself doesn't look to be much of a treat either. As the movie points out rather amusingly, parties in Hollywood are often more about business dealings than merrymaking. Joe and Sally have invited their obnoxious neighbors merely to avoid a lawsuit (the folks next door hate Joe and Sally's noisy dog). Mac (John C. Reilly), the director of Sally's new flick, buries himself in another room to watch rushes all evening. Joe and Sally's business managers (Parker Posey and John Benjamin) are there simply to get contracts and tax returns signed.
Cumming and Leigh manage to gain a surprising amount of mileage from all of the backbiting inherent in showbiz life. While one might wonder what the film had been like if it had been centered around, oh, the computer industry, it's hard to deny that some choice gags could probably only come from living in a culture where women are considered undesirable after 30. In one of the more amusing bits, Skye inadvertently insults her host by calling Sally her "favorite living actress," as if the still very attractive star were on her way to a nursing home.
To their credit, Leigh and Cumming may have cast themselves in the leads, but both have given enough juicy moments to the surrounding performers, preventing "The Anniversary Party" from becoming just another vanity project. Jane Adams ("Happiness") is a scream as Mac's neurotic actress wife. Her new motherhood and unorthodox weight control techniques have turned her into a basket case.
The film works best when Leigh and Cumming keep the proceedings light. When "The Anniversary Party" starts to get darker toward the end, it loses much of its momentum because none of the characters seem quite deep enough to elicit much sympathy.
A subplot involving Joe's aloofness from his family in the United Kingdom seems forced, and he's not likable enough to make one care if he ever makes up with his relatives. During these sequences, the film unravels and almost erases some of the delights in the earlier scenes.
There also are debatable passages involving casual drug use and topless swimming from some of the female partiers. Both are appropriate for the atmosphere, but at times they seem more like an attempt to liven up a fading story. They help to make "The Anniversary Party" more of an in-joke than it should be. There also are tributes the other partiers offer to the couple that sound lamer than some of the greetings people receive on home videos of their own weddings.
If Cumming and Leigh try another hand at directing movies (this is the first effort for both), they might want to look outside the L.A. city limits for inspiration. There are probably fewer eccentrics for their ensemble cast to play, but there might also be more substantial stories and fresh characters who can appeal to audiences that don't care much about the woes of entertainers.