For an actress such as Nicole Kidman, who has had such a splendidly successful year with movies (2001's "Moulin Rouge
" and "The Others
"), "Birthday Girl" could not have come at a more inopportune time. Kidman is in her usual fine form, but her strong performance is at the service of an unfortunate cinematic misfire. Tellingly, "Birthday Girl" has sat on the shelf for several years and is only now being released by Miramax due to her reinvigorated popularity. It might have been wise to leave well enough alone.
John Buckingham (Ben Chaplin) is an unhappy London bank clerk who yearns for a solid relationship with someone of the opposite sex. With not much luck finding anyone that suits him, he turns to the Internet, where he finds a "From Russia With Love" web site offering a catalog of mail-order brides. John requests someone who doesn't necessarily have to be pretty, but requires that they be intelligent, speak English, and have nice conversations with him. When he meets his supposed dream girl, Nadia (Nicole Kidman), he is dismayed to find that the only word of English she can speak is, "yes." While John attempts to send her back, Nadia moves into his house and strikes up a sexually satisfying connection with him after learning a thing or two from his pornographic videos and magazines. John and Nadia fall into a comfortable rhythm with each other that is shattered with a surprise visit from her supposed cousins, Yuri (Vincent Cassel) and Alexei (Mathieu Kassovitz).
Everything that has been described occurs in the opening half-hour, which sets the film up as an offbeat romance. What follows could most generously be described as an identity crisis, introducing plot turns and elements of a crime-thriller that pulls the rug out from under what we have previously learned about three of the central characters.
Inauspiciously directed by Jez Butterworth, "Birthday Girl" tugs you in so many different directions that a likely response from viewers will be to start pushing everything away. Aside from the bland lead, John (who does some rather inane things himself as the story progresses), the characters surrounding him are distastefully characterized to meet the demands of each scene, rather than believably developed as real people. And the twisty premise is one that does not elicit thrills or a sense of originality, but one desperately hackneyed situation after the next.
If there is one difficult part of making a movie romance, it is turning the burgeoning relationship into something worth rooting for. As written by Jez and Tom Butterworth, John and Nadia are hapless lugs who both do some very bad things through the course of the running time (sometimes directly to each other). Only a half-hearted attempt is made to present their expanding bond, and no attempt at all is made to present them as likable people. If anything, you can't wait for the film to end so you can get away from them.
Ben Chaplin (2000's "Lost Souls
") has trouble making John's many rationalizations accessible, leaving one to wonder if what he decides to fight for in the third act is really worth all the trouble. Whether this is Chaplin's or Butterworth's fault remains to be disclosed, but blame should be put on both of them for not fully rounding out his lead role. Nicole Kidman offers a pitch-perfect Russian accent and a few moments of much-needed humanity to Nadia, but otherwise is not used to her fullest capabilities. Nadia isn't so much a plausible character than an enigma.
"Birthday Girl" leaves one feeling thoroughly displeased at the trifle they have just witnessed, even with a contrived, falsely upbeat ending tacked on. An ineffective romance, a monotonous thriller, and a decidedly banal crime picture, this grimy-looking "Birthday Girl" deserves no well wishes.
©2002 by Dustin Putman