Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming stir it up.

The Big Swill 

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming stir it up.

Now here's a tricky one. Start with a busload of familiar and appealing stars, shacked up together for a couple of weeks in a house in the Hollywood Hills. Assign them their mission: to emulate themselves -- sort of -- while dutifully reminding us that human relationships can be complicated. Then set the tone (Celebrity meets The Celebration, only tidier), distribute assorted motivations (wistfulness, emptiness, general scatterbrainedness), and capture the whole shebang on fairly benign digital video. Cut it all together to represent a night that's half cathartic confessional, half talent showcase, and if the distributors balk, you can always sell the thing to the Discovery Channel as an ethnological study of Southern California's mysterious Indulgente tribe.

Indeed, The Anniversary Party, cowritten and codirected by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, goes to great lengths to inhabit an awkward space that's midway between a home movie and a conventional narrative. The two wrote all the roles -- including their own -- with their famous friends in mind, and while some don't even bother changing their names, others appear to be doing less actual acting than simply exaggerating aspects of their own personae. When it's all over, one is less compelled to applaud than to give each "character" a sympathetic hug.

The dog is the first tip-off. A couple obsessed with their pet's delicate psyche -- who focus upon the mutt as a gravitational center for their relationship -- rarely epitomize stability. No exception is the volatile marriage of Joe and Sally Therrian (Cumming and Leigh), which they're slowly piecing back together after a year of estrangement. When we first meet them, lying in bed with their troublesome hound, Otis (who, for the record, receives billing above most of the A-listers), the hack novelist and the ripening starlet have a busy day ahead. First they have to work out with their private yoga instructor (Steven Freedman), then they have to be PC to their housecleaners (Norizzela Monterroso, Clara Demadrano) and then there's the little matter of hosting their friends and neighbors for a night of emotional exhibitionism.

Almost everyone attending is a media person, so the movie offers plenty of the sort of knowing wink-wink done so well in films like L.A. Story and The Player, which works just as well here. Cal and Sophia Gold (Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates) are, respectively, a charming and narcissistic actor and an actress who has stepped away from the business to raise their rather theatrical children (Owen and Greta Kline). Mac Forsyth (John C. Reilly) is directing Sally and Cal in a mediocre new movie, while his wife, Clair (Jane Adams), is attempting to continue her acting career despite coming apart at the seams with worry over their newborn son. Judy and Jerry Adams (Parker Posey and John Benjamin Hickey) are the Therrians' hilariously uppity business managers. And so on.

As is often the case when actors take the helm, however, any and all irony is cast aside in favor of true and defining moments, and here this often equals queasiness. Despite the unfortunate look-at-us! tone of the cute moments and melodrama, however, at least this isn't Dead Again. (It's actually a high compliment to say it's closer to Peter's Friends.) Usually, all it takes is a sigh and a polite roll of the eyes to skirt embarrassment and move on to the next sequence, and the humor helps a lot. Comedienne Mary-Lynn Rajskub is a hoot as -- what else -- the Therrians' friend "Mary-Lynn." And Kline helps himself to some wacky one-liners ("Don't do this 'natural childbirth' stuff -- it's just not natural!")

Above and beyond that, the most revealing moments in The Anniversary Party are provoked not by the Therrians' professional peers but by more challenging characters. Most amusing -- and, later, touching -- are the irritable neighbors, Ryan and Monica Rose (Denis O'Hare and Mina Badie), two inquisitive and uptight "normal people" invited specifically to neutralize their ongoing battle over Otis' barking. Adding zest is Joe's former flame Gina (Jennifer Beals) and Sally's nebbishy friend Panes (Michael Panes), who's a dead ringer for Peter Sellers. And topping the bill is Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow), a ditzy superstar set to play Sally in Joe's adaptation of his autobiographical novel.

Leigh and Cumming step into this project with confidence in all capacities, and one certainly can't say that the production -- with original music by Michael Penn and archive tracks compiled by recording artist E -- wants for hipness. What it lacks, however, is perspective; the creators are just too close to their material, and these shorthand therapy sessions (he yells, she cries) offer precious little to engage anyone outside their clique. By the end, one feels strangely compassionate yet intellectually detached, as if the hugs and not the lauding were their goal all along.


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