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Birthday Girl   C

Miramax Films

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Jez Butterworth
Writers: Jez Butterworth, Tom Butterworth
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Ben Chaplin, Vincent Cassel, Mathieu Kassovitz, Stephen Mangan.

Review by Rob Vaux

The early signs for Birthday Girl did not look good: a distinct lack of publicity, despite the presence of Nicole Kidman, ads presenting it as another thriller du jour, a discreet opening on Super Bowl weekend. Every aspect of the pre-release said "go away;" you could actually see the stink lines rising from the theater. It comes as a surprise then, that Birthday Girl manages as much as it does. While hardly a film for the ages, its distinct lack of Suck makes it more worthwhile than one might pretend.

Indeed, it's not so much a thriller as a sort of black comedy, would-be brain twister and romance all rolled into one. As such, it suffers from an acute identity crisis, though Kidman's reliable presence helps alleviate the worst symptoms. It also exercises a distinctly British sensibility, which givers things a semblance of unity. Birthday Girl works best when it taps into that most British fear -- the Awkward Situation going horribly awry -- and finds firm ground in Ben Chaplin's befuddled prat of a hero. As John Buckingham, a meek bank teller who makes the far-fetched decision to purchase a mail-order bride, he embodies stammering nerves and trampled dignity in a way only the Queen's loyal subjects can.

The bride comes from an online site called From Russia With Love, promising exotic companionship in exchange for a residency visa. Sound dodgy? You bet, but Buckingham considers it "quietly brave," a sign of how desperately dull his life has become. The poor guy never has a chance when Kidman's alluring, coltish Nadia shows up at the airport. Unable to speak English but willing to perform fellatio on command, she soon wraps Buckingham completely around her little finger. Director Jez Butterworth shows a slightly wicked sense of humor during these early scenes, lending Birthday Girl a refreshingly skewed atmosphere.

Naturally, the chickens soon come home to roost, in this case literally. Nadia's "cousins" (Vincent Cassel and Mathieu Kassovitz) show up at the door, expecting hospitality and a whole lot more. Buckingham's awkward efforts to be a good host soon turn to exasperation, then fear as the Russian trio smoothly and effortlessly take over his life. Here, the thriller elements kick into gear, involving a fair-to-middling con game and one of the most inept bank robberies ever conceived. It also marks the first sign of trouble. Though it tries hard to keep these elements afloat Birthday Girl can't let go of the comedy of manners that it started with. It stumbles even further when it attempts to generate a genuine romance, which flies in the face of too many other details to be plausible. The mix never really comes together, and Butterworth doesn't show the discipline to pick one mood and stick with it. We shift gears with alarming rapidity, even as the plot meanders aimlessly towards some sort of conclusion. Though only 90 minutes long, Birthday Girl still feels tired by the climax, as if the effort of maintaining so many different moods wears it out. The film has potential, but never manages to put the pieces together quite right.

Still, there are pleasantries along the way. Kidman has lots of fun with her femme fatale, and few actresses of her caliber are so easy on the eyes. The film's British mentality can be charming at times, and Chaplin's semi-incompetent protagonist makes a refreshing change from the dashing heroes usually found in films like this. As unformed as Birthday Girl feels, it's never really bad and even the worst elements retain a sort of passive watchability. You might not recommend the film but you certainly won't feel cheated when you walk out. Given the quiet release, one suspects that the producers knew they could have done better. The nicest thing about Birthday Girl is that it knows it could have done worse.

By the way, if anyone knows how I can order Nicole Kidman online, please give me a heads up.

Review published 02.04.2002.

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