Mark Reviews Movies

BIRTHDAY GIRL

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jez Butterworth

Cast: Nicole Kidman, Ben Chaplin, Vincent Cassel, Mathieu Kassovitz

MPAA Rating: R (for sexuality and language)

Running Time: 1:30

Release Date: 2/1/02


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Review by Mark Dujsik

Birthday Girl is an odd little film that starts off unconventional and just gets stranger and stranger. By the time the film is over, it’s covered an impressive number of genres, from an odd romantic comedy with an erotic twist to a crime picture to a road movie to a thriller and ending again with the romance. Each of these elements works in its own way (the romance is sweet, the thriller has some interesting gimmicks, and the road movie has some quirky bonding scenes), and the way the film goes from one to another contains some unexpected plot twists. The script is a balancing act, trying to bring these elements together without making a single one stick out or seem out of place. The tone incorporates an absurd and ironic humor that meshes well with whatever mask the film is wearing. The story is nothing revolutionary and the characterization exists to serve the screenplay, but the whole endeavor works for the most part as an interesting and entertaining experiment in genre bending and tone.

John Buckingham (Ben Chaplin) is a lonely, socially awkward, British bank teller who, with all his responsibilities at work and home, finds it hard to meet women. So to change his luck, he begins looking on a Russian Internet-order bride website, records a message, and chooses a mate. The woman he has chosen is Nadia (Nicole Kidman), who chain-smokes, throws up on the ride back home, and, to John’s surprise, doesn’t speak a word of English. As John continually calls customer service to tell them their error, the couple’s love life starts to pick up. She gives him a ring, starts to learn English, and takes an interest in his pornography collection. He provides for her, buys her a Russian-English dictionary, and throws her a birthday party. However, unexpectedly joining the party is a pair of Nadia’s friends from home, Alexei (Vincent Cassel) and Yuri (Mathieu Kassovitz). The two stay at John’s house, but eventually, he asks them to leave, inciting threats and a demand for money from Yuri.

The resulting bank robbery leads to the best example of the kind of humor present throughout the film. The scenario: John walks into the bank with a guitar case (not the most inconspicuous means of taking money, but that’s the kind of guy he is). As he exits the vault, guitar case full of money, he stops, notices that his fellow employees are staring at him, smiles, and walks away. To top it off, the employees are engaging in some trust exercises and not paying attention to their co-workers, who are confidently falling back into thin air. From here on out, the film takes a few unexpected turns, and by the end, we soon realize that we’ll never be quite sure where it’ll go. The script by brothers Tom and Jez Butterworth (Jez also directed the picture) is a cornucopia of underdeveloped great ideas, but even that is more interesting than a fully developed piece of formula. And when the ideas work, they really work. Take the climax, which has John observing the actions of a pair of characters through a hotel window. The scene, reminiscent of Rear Window, plays in silence except for John’s mumblings of distress. It works as homage and keeps us guessing as to what will happen next.

Without a concentration on characterization, the actors have the task of embodying their characters. Ben Chaplin is an affable and endearing hero. He personifies the awkward, quiet type and has a solid sense of comic timing. Vincent Cassel, who played one of the detectives in The Crimson Rivers, is not given much to do but handles his Russian accent and the mediating side of his character well. Mathieu Kassovitz shatters the memory of his performance as the romantic, dreamer love interest in Amélie with his portrayal of the vicious, quick-to-anger Yuri. Nicole Kidman’s role changes archetypes as readily as the script changes scenarios. Nadia starts off a wide-eyed ingénue but eventually takes on the masks of femme fatale, scorned lover, and damsel in distress. That Kidman effortlessly weaves through each of these facades while donning a Russian dialect (it’s solid when she’s speaking Russian but gets shaky when putting it to English) shows that she’s one of the most reliable female stars working in film today.

Birthday Girl is a tough sell. I liked it, but even my enjoyment exists on a level of confusion. The film goes through so many shifts and yet still manages to stay consistent as a whole. The characters are subject to change at will, and the plot switches focus with each shift. There’s no unity on these levels, but I believe the consistency lies solely on the fact that the movie goes through so many changes. The only constant in the film is that nothing is constant. It’s sort of exciting in that way.

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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