“THE PARTY” — 1½ stars — Timothy Spall, Kristin Scott Thomas, Patricia Clarkson, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy; R (language and drug use); Broadway
“The Party” is the kind of event you wouldn’t want to attend, or in this case, watch. It’s a shame to see so many first-rate actors stuck in an assortment of unlikable roles.
Sally Potter’s “The Party” is an ensemble piece about a dysfunctional group of friends and associates who gather to celebrate Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas), whose new position in British parliamentary government is a sign of big things to come.
Everyone seems thrilled for her except for Janet’s brooding husband Bill (Timothy Spall), who spends most of the film staring into the middle-distance in a catatonic state in between trips to the living room stereo to switch records.
“I’m Bill,” he says vacantly, “I think … I used to be.”
At first, we assume Bill’s dreading his future as second fiddle to his successful wife, or that he’s wise to Janet’s infidelities with the mysterious character who keeps calling and texting her as she scrambles to get ready for the party. But then he reveals a cancer diagnosis, which marks one of many high-drama reveals to come.
The announcement is a shock to all the other party guests, who have their own myriad problems. Janet’s best friend April (Patricia Clarkson) is about to separate from her new-age weirdo husband Gottfried (Bruno Ganz) and spends the film issuing a barrage of snarky one-liners at him and anyone else who says anything she doesn’t agree with. For his part, Gottfried is a vacant cartoon, full of so much high-minded drivel that it’s impossible to see how he and April would have gotten together in the first place.
Martha (Cherry Jones) is a snobbish professor whose obscure academic qualifications inspire one character to describe her as “a first-rate lesbian and a second-rate thinker.” Her partner Jinny (Emily Mortimer) is pregnant with triplets, but their relationship is about to collapse under the weight of the coming revelations of Martha’s past.
The tension increases when the hotshot banker Tom (Cillian Murphy) arrives with a concealed weapon and a generous stash of cocaine. Like Gottfried, he’s more a guest of association, married to Janet’s friend Marianne, who Tom claims is running late. As he fumbles with his weapon in the bathroom immediately after sniffing a line, presumably we are to wonder who he’s come to kill.
The excellent cast and chaotic premise suggest a fun and wacky comedy, but the characters are so insufferable — two or three quips from April would be effective, but two or three dozen just make you resent her — that the whole production begins to feel like a dinner party version of Monty Python’s “Upper-Class Twit of the Year” sketch, minus the wit.
As Potter’s story stumbles forward, characters reveal secrets and connections and infidelities, one twist leads to another and the whole thing builds to a surprise finale that falls flat because you’d just as soon the whole party gets wiped out by an errant meteor. The entire film only stretches out to an hour and 11 minutes, including the credits, which poses a strange glass-half-empty, glass-half-full predicament: If you hate it, it will at least be over soon. But then you have to come to grips with the fact that you’ve paid full price for — at best — two-thirds of a movie.
Oh, it’s also shot in black and white.
“The Party” should have been better. It should have been so much better.
“The Party" is rated R for language and drug use; running time: 71 minutes.