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ACTORS' REVELRY

THE ANNIVERSARY PARTY ***

STARRING: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Alan Cumming, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Kline, Phoebe Cates and Parker Posey

DIRECTORS: Leigh and Cumming

RUNNING TIME: 115 minutes

RATING: R for nudity, sex, rough language, drug use

THE LOWDOWN: Champion Hollywood neurotics attend an anniversary party.

On the morning of their anniversary party, their personal trainer is giving them a workout. They hear a congratulatory phone call from his screwed-up sister in London on their answering machine. Neither thinks it's important enough to answer. Then there's a phone call from her doctor. That one she'll take.

It doesn't take long to know the kind of movie "The Anniversary Party" is going to be. About four minutes, by my count. It's an actor's movie - directed and written and, in part, improvised by actors, so you can be sure that somewhere the principals are going to have a scene of weeping and screaming and revelation, one of those "oh no, you didn't do that" emotional bloodbaths that leave no secret unrevealed and no private seething unexpressed. This is what American actors have been taught is the way to the truth since Eugene O'Neill and, by God, when they're running the asylum, that's the way things are going to go.

So, too, is there going to be a lot of witty repartee ("you can never be too early or too thin"), a little smart satire and melodramatic partying down (nobody parties as flamboyantly as theater folk. Rockers and literary types have long since become unconscious when theater folk are just going into a party's second act curtain).

It's a wildly erratic movie. One minute it's a funny, poignant, affecting and deeply lovable portrait of a lot of second and third-level Hollywood neurotics and narcissists celebrating an unstable couple's slightly miraculous sixth anniversary. The next minute, it's an exercise in stale actor's workshop truth - the kind of raw sweat, hysteria and revelation (usually involving fluidity of desire, pregnancy and ego posturing) that American stages have been crowded with since Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee.

In other words, at its worst, it's a bunch of narcissistic Hollywood types who are much, much smarter than what they're usually asked to do in movies - certainly smart enough to know what's silly about their own milieu - but not really smart enough to imagine anything better either.

If, at first, this seems like the kind of party you dearly wished you'd sent regrets to weeks ago, stay with it. It gets better.

The drug Ecstasy may be, most emphatically, problematic in the world. But it's the dramatic making of the movie. It seems that into this very scruffy C-list party, an A-list actress has drifted in on a cloud of adoration (lined with pure suspicion) and enough Ecstasy for everyone at the party - and probably their relatives in Oswego too.

Things go south in a hurry. Soon there's a lot of nude swimming, furtive kissing in the bushes, touchy-feely conversations in small rooms. And then the emotional bloodletting begins - family tragedy, ugly revelations about the recent past, even a thwarted suicide attempt. Some of it moves and surprises, some of it annoys in the extreme. You may, at several points, begin to wonder where Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy are when you really need them.

The anniversary celebrants are played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, who also wrote and directed this $3.5 million homemade concoction. Gwyneth Paltrow plays the A-list actress who wanders into the party because she's about to be directed by Cumming, who plays a writer directing his first film. She's the best thing in the movie - unexpectedly goofy and funny and wryly conceived to boot.

Kevin Kline plays a friend, an actor in Leigh's current movie. (He complains to his director about his recent closeups. The nostrils aren't the windows of the soul, he says, the eyes are.) His real semi-retired wife Phoebe Cates plays his semi-retired wife. Their two adorable real kids play their two adorable kids.

John C. Reilly plays a director. Parker Posey plays the wife of their accountant. Jennifer Beals - as good as she's ever been - plays Cumming's oldest friend. It's a cozy little mom-and-pop satiric drama with all the virtues and debits implied.

It's impossible to dislike a film that has such a shrewd eye about crabby neighbors - or that gives you such an archetypally awful game of party charades.

Watch out for low-flying histrionics, though. Enjoy, by all means, but don't ever get too comfortable with this one.

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