Sally Potter's new film "The Party " is 71 minutes long.
That fact alone shouldn't necessarily be a selling point — stories need as long as they need — but when superhero movies and comedies regularly extend well past the two-hour mark, it's hard not to appreciate the restraint.
And it is a rich and layered 71 minutes that Potter spends, in black and white, with a group of highly educated and highly dysfunctional people gathering for an intimate dinner party at Janet (Kristen Scott Thomas) and Bill's (Timothy Spall) London house to celebrate Janet's appointment as the shadow minister for health.
You know going in that things are going to spiral out of control. The first shot is of Janet, distressed and disheveled, pointing a small handgun at a mystery person on the other side of the door (and, essentially the viewing audience). Then the film jumps back to the beginning of the evening and you spend the dizzying duration watching the well-heeled crowd unravel.
It's a delightful grouping of actors, including Patricia Clarkson as a cynical and blunt American, April, and Bruno Ganz as her German husband Gottfried (who April informs the group early on that she is separating from). There is Martha (Cherry Jones), a cool and collected women's studies professor, and her pregnant, emotional, and slightly neglected partner Jinny (Emily Mortimer). And then there is Tom (Cillian Murphy), a skittish banker who arrives last and without his wife, who he says is stuck at work and will arrive later which sounds more and more like a lie the more he repeats it. Then he immediately heads to the bathroom to do a few lines of cocaine.
Bill, too, is acting strange. He's almost catatonic as guests start to arrive, seated in a chair in the middle of the living room and limply holding a glass of wine, but Janet is too busy to notice between cooking her elaborate canapés in the kitchen and juggling incessant texts and phone calls from someone she is clearly having an affair with.
Potter follows various characters throughout the evening, sometimes overlapping action and dialogue of different scene partners. Each of the five characters gets their own arc and crisis of conscience and moment of release too — something you can't say of many movies.
While it is wickedly funny and deft, this crowd is also not one you'd clamor for the company of for any extended amount of time. But, it is a fun experiment to be a fly on the wall for this bizarre night — a little dinner theater canapé that'll make you laugh and think and be grateful (hopefully) that your friends aren't this kooky. By the end, you're ready to call it night too.
And, in the spirit of Potter's lean film, we'll keep this review briefer than usual too.
"The Party," a Roadside Attractions release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America "for language and drug use." Running time: 71 minutes. Three stars out of four.