Lara, Lara, on the Wall

Jolie’s the best special effect of all in Tomb Raider; The Anniversary Party would be fine, except for all those actors.

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
Directed by Simon West
Paramount Pictures

The Anniversary Party
Directed by Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming
Fine Line Pictures

It’s tough to think of any male action hero who would enter the arena like Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider—hungry and turned-on, with those air-mattress lips signaling both “come hither” and “up yours.” Male stars tend to project either a gee-wiz diffidence or a manly stoicism; they rarely acknowledge that the mayhem is a substitute for getting laid. But Jolie telegraphs, “Come and get it, big boy.” With her pistols strapped to her bare thighs, she goes spread-eagled under an attacking robot and then comes up firing, laughing as she takes the colossus down. She digs getting shot at, too. After ducking a shower of bullets, she fixes the bad guys with taunting eyes, then puffs a piece of debris off her shoulder—as if to say, “Is that all you got?”

Apart from Jolie, there’s little in the way of a movie here. LaraCroft: Tomb Raider is a frank substitute for a computer-game experience, with our surrogate warrior saving the planet from a diabolical order called “the Illuminati” that wants to control the flow of time. Or something. There are a few nifty set-pieces: The best is a fight in a Cambodian temple that climaxes first with stone monkeys and then a gargantuan, six-armed Buddha coming to life. (The Buddha gets off a look of surprise as Lara’s bullets cut into it, as if it didn’t quite expect to encounter high-tech weaponry.) But the picture, directed by Simon West (Con Air [1997]), shares with The Mummy Returns a kind of megabudget promiscuity, bombarding you with more gun battles, chase scenes, special effects, and explosions than any non-half-witted narrative could possibly contain.

The happy difference here is that the promiscuity seems to emanate from the leading actress. As “Lady” Lara Croft, an insouciantly well-heeled Englishwoman, Jolie alternately strides (and jiggles) through high-end automobile and sunglass commercials and kickboxes her way through superkinetic, Cuisinart-edited action sequences. Whatever she does, her glittering, libidinous impudence gives this packaged piece of corporate schlock a strange integrity—perhaps even a soul. She’s the Emma Peel of our naughtiest fantasies.

In interviews, the actress comes off as one weird chick—farther out than even her father, Jon Voight (who turns up very briefly in this movie as the martyred explorer Lord Croft). Jolie’s best performances—including her Oscar-winner in Girl, Interrupted (1999)—have been variations on her smoldering turn in the HBO bipoic Gia (1998), and it’s hard to predict her range or whether she’ll burn herself out in a few short years. For now, though, she’s the most amazing special effect in movies. The best thing in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is a bungee-jumping ballet that Lara performs late at night in her mansion, soaring high and low in Japanese silk pajamas and with her hair pulled tightly back. It’s reportedly all Jolie—no doubles. When a monitor signals the presence of intruders, she swings herself onto a chandelier and watches as an army of black-garbed, machine-gun-toting bandits descend on ropes into the great hall. Suspended there like a Kabuki bird of prey, she regards her assailants quizzically—as if these men with guns are but transient things while her every exquisite gesture is eternal.

Playwrights and filmmakers are always on the lookout for situations in which people will shed their inhibitions and spill their dark secrets—thus, the “party” genre. You take a bunch of characters with unstable marriages, long-simmering jealousies, and buried traumas; add alcohol and other drugs; and blend. The upshot is handily spelled out by Edward Albee in the names of the acts of his Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: “Fun and Games,” “Walpurgisnacht,” and “Exorcism.” It probably never occurred to Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, who wrote, directed, and star in The Anniversary Party, that they’d hobbled themselves by making most of the characters in their party movie either actors or sundry show-biz types—full-flower exhibitionists from the outset, with hardly an inhibition among them. They enter emoting and have nowhere to go.

They go there anyway. Cumming and Leigh play a couple publicly celebrating their sixth year of marriage—maybe not a wise idea when they’ve just been estranged for six months. She’s an actress in her late ‘30s whose work has become erratic. (She’s apparently stinking up the screen in her latest movie.) He’s a writer about to direct a film based on an autobiographical novel—with a younger, more glamorous star set to play the part inspired by his wife. She has a buried secret. He’s keeping a tragic family situation at bay. The friends who show up—among them Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates (as a couple with kids in tow—their own), Jane Adams, John C. Reilly, Parker Posey, Jennifer Beals, and Gwyneth Paltrow as the young hottie—are clearly playing versions of themselves, lightly satirized. On cue, each character has an existential crisis in the throes of the drug ecstasy, then the movie ends on a down note, with word of an off-screen character’s death.

It could certainly have been much worse. The director of photography is John Bailey, and he’s so superb at tracking and lighting his subjects that you’d never know the movie was shot on digital video. Some of the actors are appealing. Mina Badie, as the couple’s “normal” next-door neighbor, looks at Cumming with something like physical longing—which must be a first. Even though Phoebe Cates is out of practice emoting and isn’t really up to her big scene—high on X, she laments her decision to have children—she still has a warm and relaxed presence, and Leigh is visibly comfortable with her. (The two have been friends since Fast Times at Ridgemont High in 1982.) A movie this self-conscious needs Paltrow’s unembarrassed glamour: She looks more than ever like a willowy extraterrestrial, and her effusions recall many emotionally promiscuous actresses I’ve met.

That said, I had a hard time maintaining interest in (let alone liking) any of these self-involved Hollywood twerps, and scene after scene is a grating mixture of self-aggrandizement and masochism. After years of threatening to be a good, even marvelous actress, Leigh is now able to make the quantum leap from underacting to overacting with no stops in-between. It’s painful to watch her—especially since she knows she has a problem (her character’s increasingly bad acting is a central plot point), but she can’t seem to rouse herself to explore or illuminate it. She just turns mopey and inward. I don’t mind listening to actors talk about at length about their own acting—it’s one of the few things they actually know something about. But The Anniversary tries so hard to be “universal” that it misses the real story: The toughest part about being an actor is having to spend so much time with other actors.