Often funny and occasionally insightful, “The Party” is a decent cinematic event but nothing we’d miss if we weren’t invited. Writer and director Sally Potter crafts a short, deft story with unbelievable but intriguing characters, each inherently unlikable but still somewhat entertaining. But these provocative personalities are nothing more than empty appetizers to a plot that never gets fully cooked.
The black-and-white venture commences with Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas), pointing a gun directly at our faces. The gun never fires, but its memory haunts us as the film cuts to a party being hosted at her home. As the guests begin to arrive, we watch as Janet juggles her own romantic obligations: her left hand assigned to comforting her seemingly-senile husband Bill (Timothy Spall), while her right sends text messages to an unknown lover. Already the film feels more like a play than a movie, a low-scale dramatic event unfolding in the confines of a middle-class home.
As the guests arrive, each of them rip off their seemingly human skins to reveal themselves as nothing more than caricatures. April (Patricia Clarkson) is an excessively condescending woman, while her husband Gottfried (Bruno Ganz) is an exceedingly optimistic shaman of sorts. Martha (Cherry Jones) and Jinny (Emily Mortimer) game the crowd as token, intellectual lesbians, while finance person Tom (Cillian Murphy) desperately snorts cocaine off a bathtub while brandishing the gun we saw Janet carry earlier.
Things become an excessive farce, with Potter trying to show off her intellect as a storyteller in satirizing the intellectualism of these characters. It’s supposed to be over-the-top, with romances falling apart, food catching on fire, and prophetic monologues that seem way too articulate even for a movie set in England. Laughs are dealt out primarily by Murphy’s character, but finding out the truth about the gun macguffin is what keeps us going.
Sadly, the movie jams on its final shot. The last snippet of dialogue reveals what we had predicted ever since we saw Janet preparing for her guests to arrive. We leave feeling unsatisfied, wishing that some other conclusion could walk in and take the place of this uninvited ending.
The film is shot with a deft and creative hand, with Potter evoking the visual sensibilities of Federico Fellini and Woody Allen’s best tales. Even the story itself has Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” vibes to it, with one imagining the film could be marketed as “A Midsummer’s Nightmare” with all of its intertwining romantic proclivities. But “The Party” as a whole still feels disingenuous, a satire not quite sure of what it’s poking fun at, becoming a joke in the process.