Birthday Girl
review by KJ Doughton, 1 February 2002

Let’s get this over with quickly.  Birthday Girl is a perfectly forgettable waste of time, talent, and film, tip toeing through several different genres without committing to a specific tone.  It begins as a breezy comedy that brings to mind Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, eventually slipping into romantic realms, road movie territory, and climactic suspense. 

You’d think that a recipe this jam-packed with different ingredients would culminate in a spicy dish, indeed. After all, Jonathan Demme pulled it off in 1986’s Something Wild, while flashier, trashier hybrids like Tony Scott’s True Romance thrilled through their cluttered, carnival-ride randomness.  But unless such an "everything but the kitchen sink" approach is guided by assured, focused hands, the results are either over-bloated or undercooked. 

Birthday Girl is hopelessly destined for the latter category, as it flicks a dab of this and a little of that onto the screen.  However, the whole affair is so surface-level and underdeveloped, it’s the moviegoing equivalent to guzzling a grab bag of sleep-inducing narcotics.  Indeed, Birthday Girl is proof that variety is not always the spice of life.

Ben Chaplin plods through the thankless role of boring Brit banker, John Buckingham.  A lonely, sexually frustrated working stiff, Buckingham’s stabs at romance lead him to From Russia With Love, a web site offering up mail order brides from the one-time Soviet Union.  He settles on Nadia (Nicole Kidman), who soon steps off an Aeroflot plane and onto U.S. soil, armed with an arsenal of unwanted surprises.

For one thing, the shy, punky brunette appears to have no command of the English language, and she’s a huffing, puffing chain smoker.  John is miffed.  Neither of these less-than-endearing traits was on her web site profile.  Feeling ripped off, he is soon on the phone demanding that Nadia be returned to her native stomping grounds, but From Russia With Love isn’t prioritizing his request.

This gives him time to get acquainted with the saucy new housemate in ways that transcend their language barrier. Nadia is forthright and uninhibited in pleasures of the flesh (between Kidman’s seductress and the horny foreign exchange student from American Pie, it would appear that all Russian women named Nadia are leggy nymphos), and suddenly, John isn’t so sure he wants to return his insatiable investment. In what is presumably meant to be funny, she studies a sack of bondage porno mags he has hidden under the bed, and invites him into the sack for a lively shindig involving shackles and rope. 

Birthday Girl takes an abrupt turn down Thriller Avenue when two of Nadia’s Russian acquaintances arrive at Buckingham’s flat.  Claiming to be her cousins, chatty Yuri (Frenchman Mathieu Kassovitz, from Amélie) and physically imposing Alaxei (Vincent Cassel, another French import also starring in Brotherhood of the Wolf) barge in with vodka to celebrate Nadia’s birthday.  Soon, they’re roasting rabbit and shacking up with the two pseudo-newlyweds 

To outline what follows would be to spoil the few noteworthy surprises that Birthday Girl struggles to cough up.  Suffice to say, director Jez Butterworth (Mojo) tosses some betrayal and suspense into the mix, but never really gets under the skin of his on-the-run ensemble.  For example, the film’s early flirtations with bondage are merely a tease.  Why would John be drawn to this particular kink?  Meanwhile, neither one of the lovers gives any clue as to why they would be attracted to one other, outside of the shallow, tawdry fluid exchanges that define their relationship.  Kassovitz and Cassel strike up some colorful banter, debating the finer points of the musical Cats.  However, the fate of their characters is left unresolved and flapping in the wind, with no satisfying denouement.

Ben Chaplin is a decent, likeable presence, but if you compare his role to that of the similarly love-hungry but infinitely more complex bachelor played by Paul Gianatti in Todd Solondz’s Storytelling, you’re left starving for something more. Kidman, surely the film’s big draw with her double-barreled Moulin Rouge/The Others appearances attracting heavy Oscar buzz, also deserves better. Perhaps a rematch with director Gus Van Sant, who shaped her career-best performance as a sociopathic  newscaster in To Die For, would be a good move.

Meanwhile, inhale, make a wish that Birthday Girl goes away quietly, and blow out the candles.

Directed by:
Jez Butterworth

Nicole Kidman
Ben Chaplin
Vincent Cassel
Mathieu Kassovitz

Written by:
Tom Butterworth 
Jez Butterworth

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult





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