We’ve all seen movies like Sally Potter’s The Party before. A group of old friends with years of buried secrets come together for a dinner that quickly spirals out of control as those secrets begin to spill out. What sets this iteration apart, though, are the attendees. Not just the characters themselves — who are all in their own way so skilled at delivering sarcastic digs that cut so deep they leave a bruise — but also the actors playing them: Kristin Scott Thomas, Timothy Spall, Patricia Clarkson, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer, Bruno Ganz, and Cillian Murphy. It’s basically a Murderer’s Row of indie pros who play off one another like they’ve been performing this particular toxic soiree on a West End stage for years.
The dinner party in question is a celebration to congratulate Scott Thomas’ Janet on a recent political promotion. But her husband, Spall’s hangdog Bill, looks utterly defeated. He sits slumped in a chair, either dazed or drunk, while listening to old blues records in the living room as Janet flirts on the phone with someone we quickly assume is her lover. Then the guests start arriving one step ahead of the storm clouds. Gottfried (Ganz) and April (Clarkson) show up, happy to parade how dysfunctional their romantic relationship is: He’s a mellow German who practices Eastern medicine and philosophy, she’s a cold-as-ice expat who drips venom with each tossed-off quip. Then there’s Martha (Jones) and Jinny (Mortimer), a lesbian couple trying to have kids. And finally, Tom (Murphy), a twitchy, coked-up finance guy who for some reason has a gun hidden under his suit jacket. Needless to say, the gun makes an appearance.
Drinks are topped off, entrees are burned, betrayals are revealed, crying jag is unleashed, and the audience just sits back and watches as the psychological fireworks explode. Clarkson gets most of the juiciest lines (although, frankly, it gets to be overkill after a while), but it’s the subtler turns that stick with you. Not that there’s anything particularly nuanced in all of the door-slamming, lacerating Noel Cowardness of it all. There’s a lot of talk (the movie feel like a one-act play), but it’s the kind of barbed urbane banter that Woody Allen once specialized in before he fell into lazy self-parody. Before Potter pulls the rug out from under viewers in the homestretch (the big-finale revelation will either come as a genuine shocker or just a silly bit of melodrama—your mileage will vary), The Party feels like a highly entertaining evening at the theater minus the Playbill and Broadway sticker shock. B+