Gary “Gal” Dove (Ray Winstone) has it made. After serving a prison term, the portly, middle-aged English gangster has retired to a hillside home on Spain’s Costa del Sol with his adored and adoring ex-porn-star wife, Deedee (Amanda Redman). One afternoon, while sipping beer by his swimming pool and supervising his houseboy’s labors, he’s nearly killed by a fluke of nature. (Other reviewers have described this incident, but I can’t bring myself to spoil the surprise.) The event foreshadows a greater threat to Gal’s idyllic existence.

Psychotic Don Logan (Ben Kingsley), one of Gal’s former criminal associates, turns up, dispatched by gangland boss Teddy Bass (Ian McShane) to bring Gal back for one more job, a complicated bank heist. The harder Gal resists, the more abusive Don becomes, vilifying Deedee and turning on Gal’s crony Aitch (Cavan Kendall) and Aitch’s hard-faced but affectionate girlfriend, Jackie (Julianne White). Seemingly resigned to the failure of his mission, Don heads for the airport, only to return, filled with rage, for an explosive showdown. Its aftermath leaves Gal no option but to return to London and participate in the risky robbery that could end his blissful Spanish exile.

Sexy Beast, the first feature by director Jonathan Glazer and the screenwriting team of Louis Mellis and David Scinto, offers a witty, suspenseful twist on a familiar underworld plot. Glazer employs the technical skills he’s refined making commercials and music videos to visualize the contrasting worlds of Mellis and Scinto’s tale of good and evil—the sunstruck Spanish coast and London’s dark-hued underbelly. Although the movie’s moral scheme is almost allegorically simple, its presentation is uncommonly sophisticated, a state-of-the-art display of stylized camerawork, dynamic editing, and inspired acting.

Unlike Guy Ritchie’s paper-thin, soulless English crime movies (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch), Sexy Beast offers characters who engage our interest. Winstone, one of Britain’s most acclaimed screen and television actors, will surely gain an enthusiastic American following for his compelling performance as Gal. Although he’s hardly a matinee idol—he resembles a less antic Benny Hill—Winstone’s shrewd underplaying embodies Gal’s quiet strength and gallant devotion to his spouse. Oscar-winner Kingsley, who achieved international fame playing the title role in Richard Attenborough’s high-minded but soporific Gandhi, has a showier role as Gal’s demonic nemesis. Leaving havoc in his wake, Kingsley creates a villain of mythic malevolence, in a star turn likely to win him another shelf of acting awards. Soft-spoken McShane, with his absurd black-dyed hair and what appears to be a mouthful of discount dentistry, turns out to be even more diabolical than Kingsley, capable of unconscionable betrayals and cold-blooded violence. As in most crime movies, the male characters carry the day, but Redman’s and White’s sympathetic supporting performances provide the emotional and erotic underpinnings that motivate the behavior of their mates.

A fast-paced, darkly funny, unexpectedly romantic thriller filled with double- and triple-crosses and capped by a fiendishly clever coda, Sexy Beast is difficult to write about without destroying the pleasure of its potential audience. But, like Christopher Nolan’s Memento and Following, Glazer’s movie far outstrips substance with dazzling style. These prodigiously gifted young English filmmakers apparently embrace the ready-made appeal of the gangster genre to evade the daunting task of coming up with fresh, personal content—a challenge that their veteran counterpart Mike Hodges met so memorably in Croupier. Although consistently engrossing and brilliantly executed, Sexy Beast lacks the thematic inventiveness that distinguishes classic movies from polished entertainments.

Glazer and his company apply their talents to revitalizing a threadbare story line: the out-to-pasture tough guy forced by circumstances to return to his former turf. In The Anniversary Party, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, who collaborated on the script and direction and play leading roles, fail to put a new spin on another well-worn formula: the fête worse than death. (Some outstanding examples: Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game, Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Claude Goretta’s splendid but nearly forgotten The Invitation.) These films depict social gatherings that begin cordially but gradually degenerate into a series of painful revelations and unpleasant confrontations, sometimes even resulting in a real death.

The Anniversary Party chronicles an afternoon-through-dawn gathering of friends, nearly all associated with the movie industry. The occasion is the sixth wedding anniversary of British novelist Joe Therrian (Cumming) and screen actress Sally Nash (Leigh), a volatile couple recently reunited after a trial separation. The guest list includes their Tinseltown pals and colleagues as well as the peevish couple next door (Denis O’Hare and Mina Badie), who are threatening to take legal action over the Therrians’ noisy dog.

The first half of the film establishes tensions that the characters manage to keep in check. Sally is upset that Joe has given the leading role in an adaptation of one of his novels, which he plans to direct, to a younger actress, Skye Davidson (Gwyneth Paltrow). Sally’s also uneasy about Joe’s insistence that they have a child, following the examples of actor Cal Gold and his retired actress-wife, Sophia (played by real-life couple Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates), and jittery new mother Clair Forsyth (Jane Adams). Clair’s husband, Mac (John C. Reilly), in the midst of directing a romantic comedy starring Cal and Sally, fears that the project is doomed because of the distracted hostess’ stiff performance.

These characters and others—Joe’s sympathetic former lover, Gina Taylor (Jennifer Beals), and Jerry and Judy Adams (John Benjamin Hickey and Parker Posey), the couple’s accountant and his spouse—arrive at the Therrians’ stylish Richard Neutra-designed glass-and-stone home laden with gifts and good wishes. Later in the evening, Skye offers her present—a bag of Ecstasy pills—which precipitates a series of crises including some shameful confessions, bitter conflicts, a near-fatal drowning, and the disappearance of Otis the Therrians’ dog, who, under the circumstances, can’t be blamed for getting the hell out of there.

Shot in 19 days on digital video, The Anniversary Party is a surprisingly handsome and fluid film that, photographed by a less gifted cameraman than master cinematographer John Bailey, would have resembled a static one-set play. As screenwriters, Leigh and Cumming hew too closely to the generic celebration-turned-sour template: Each performer’s Moment of Truth mechanically clicks into place, culminating with the gathering’s most sobering episode. Although some may accuse the writer-directors of navel-gazing—setting the narrative in their own professional milieu and populating the film with friends whose roles are based on aspects of their private lives—at least they focus on a world they are familiar with rather than presuming to deal with showbiz outsiders. (Monica and Ryan Rose, the litigious neighbors, are the least convincing characters.)

Although The Anniversary Party is designed as an ensemble piece, its creators predictably reserve the largest, juiciest roles for themselves. This gambit pays off for Leigh, who recovers from her weirdly constipated performances in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Kansas City, and The Hudsucker Proxy to recapture the emotional richness of her star-making roles in Miami Blues and Last Exit to Brooklyn. (Interestingly, in a videocassette of Sally’s footage from the bungled comedy that Mac is shooting, Leigh employs the same brittle, affected Katharine Hepburn-esque accent that marred her work in Hudsucker.) But the effete Cumming, sporting a coiffure of Alfalfalike cowlicks, has miscast himself as her womanizing mate. At this point in his career, rampant heterosexuality lies well beyond his range.

With one exception, the rest of the cast performs impressively, with Reilly, Beals, and Otis, the canine who plays himself, deserving special praise. The other weak link is Paltrow, who, when not required to assume an English accent, has little to offer beyond a simpering billboard smile. At one point, two of the stoned male guests rhapsodize that she’s a “great actress” with “great tits,” a moment that rings clangingly false because we’re offered little evidence of either attribute.

Although formulaic, narcissistic, and only intermittently convincing, The Anniversary Party is nonetheless passably entertaining. It’s amusing, in a gossipy way, to eavesdrop on these performers spinning variations on their offscreen lives. Too bad, though, that their talents weren’t engaged by a more challenging vehicle. In the film’s press material, Leigh says, “The writing of this script was amazingly effortless”—an observation that Cumming seconds by asserting, “The whole thing wrote itself without us really noticing.” Had anyone dared point out that the pair were recycling stock characters in a time-worn structure, perhaps they would have dug deeper. As a Stephen Sondheim song sagely points out, art isn’t easy. CP