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
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
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
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.
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.
inhale, make a wish that Birthday
Girl goes away quietly, and blow out the candles.
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult