Birthday Girl

Movie Information

Genre: Comedy Thriller
Director: Jez Butterworth
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Ben Chaplin, Vincent Cassell, Matthieu Kassovitz
Rated: R

A pretty tame comedy-thriller that sat around gathering dust for three years, Birthday Girl now sneaks into our world with precious little fanfare, in an obvious attempt by Miramax to cash in on Nicole Kidman’s successes in Moulin Rouge! and The Others. The likelihood of the film doing much for Miramax is slim, but it’s not going to much damage Kidman’s reputation, because she’s great — even if the film encasing her performance is rarely more than so-so. Kidman plays Nadia (later Sofia), the Russian mail-order bride of dullish bank clerk John Buckingham (played by the equally dullish Ben Chaplin). Expecting an English-speaking, non-smoking bride, John is appalled to find that his intended chain-smokes Marlboros and her mastery of English is, at best, rudimentary. (Sensing she merely says “yes” to anything he asks, he tries, “Are you a giraffe?” on her, merely to be told, “Yes.”) However, he succumbs to her sexual charms — especially when she discovers his secret cache of bondage-oriented porn and starts fulfilling his fantasies. His secret is nothing compared to hers, though, as becomes apparent when the couple is invaded by her Russian friends, Alexei (Vincent Cassell) and Yuri (Mathieu Kossovitz), and life starts changing — not for the better. From here, the story goes on in various twists and turns that are always less surprising than co-writer/director Jez Butterworth seems to think they are. There’s a central problem with Birthday Girl that lies in its basic concept. The set-up is OK — to a point. Once the real plot takes over, though, the film grinds to a dreary halt with the mechanics of its convoluted plot. This situation is then aggravated by the screenplay’s refusal to let go of its original gag — Nadia’s lack of English — until far too late in the proceedings. Once the film lets Kidman actually speak, it picks up speed, verve and interest. Unfortunately, this is about two-thirds of the way through the movie and it’s just too late to really hook the viewer. The last act has a lot of energy and inventiveness (there’s a truly charming gag grounded in the giraffe question), but Butterworth has spent so much of the film fooling around with the mechanics of his laborious plot that you never have a sense of identity for the characters, whose motivations remain vague and their choices even vaguer. Worse, it’s hard to really care what happens to any of them. Moreover, the revelation that Nadia speaks English (with a priceless opening line) makes nonsense of some of her earlier actions (even though she’s trying to make John think she can’t speak English, why does she have to torturously examine a Russian-English dictionary just to find the word for “birthday”?). The problem is compounded by Birthday Girl’s desire to be “different” … without daring to be all that different. Its quirkiness always seems calculated and undermined (except for the very ending) by a sense of pulling back at the last moment. In the end, what marginal entertainment value Birthday Girl possesses comes strictly from Kidman, who plays her role for far more than it’s worth, effortlessly wiping her bland co-star off the screen and holding our interest even when the movie itself can’t. For that, it’s probably worth seeing. Diehard Kidman enthusiasts will want to wade through the ending credits to hear her sing “Something Stupid” with Robbie Williams, even though by that point, chances are most people will be more than ready to leave the theater.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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