A septet of fine actors gather for a dinner party in this short, pointless and mostly unfunny comedy of malice.
“The Party,” written and directed by Sally Potter, does at least give us a strong start: As we begin, one of the main characters opens the front door of a London flat and draws a gun, pointing it directly at the screen.
Whom she is threatening to shoot and why gradually becomes apparent over the next 71 minutes. We then flash back to earlier in the day, when an idealistic British politician named Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) is hosting a small gathering to celebrate her promotion.
Janet’s husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), isn’t much of a co-host. He’s just staring vacantly into nothing while he listens to jazz and rock records. Janet’s cynical friend April (Patricia Clarkson) has just arrived with her estranged boyfriend, the German spiritual healer Gottfried (Bruno Ganz). Other guests begin to arrive, including the feminist professor Martha (Cherry Jones) and her partner, Jinny (Emily Mortimer), as well as the banker Tom (Cillian Murphy), who immediately rushes to the bathroom, does a line of cocaine and examines the gun he’s brought to the party.
Over the next hour or so, these people banter, bicker and drop bombshells on each other, some of it good news but most of it not.
Eventually violence breaks out, and Chekhov’s gun comes into play, as it’s wont to do.
“The Party” is so handsomely shot — in black-and-white by cinematographer Aleksei Rodionov — and so capably acted that it’s sometimes easy to forget what a thin little nothing of a movie it is. Clarkson, in particular — as the party’s voice of reason — is amusingly caustic and combative enough to tease you with traces of the better, funnier film this might have been.
“The Party” pads its dinner-party-from-hell hijinks with a pseudo-philosophical bent, with the characters debating materialism vs. spirituality, self-interest vs. the public good. These political diversions are not not interesting, but they clunk too awkwardly against the more farcical elements of the film.
But the key problem of “The Party” (and of many films in its genre) is this: All the zany conflict and impending violence could be diffused by everyone just leaving the party. They don’t have to stay, but they do stay — far past the point of reason.
They stay because the movie needs them to stay, in the process escalating the intensity of the characters’ problems in ways that feel false.
If this were a surrealist Luis Buñuel movie or a story boxed into the confines of a stage play, sure, fine, stay at the party and talk it out.
But by the midpoint of this very short film, I couldn’t help but wonder why on Earth everyone couldn’t just shut up and go home.