Artisan // 2002 // 105 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron (Retired) // June 12th, 2003
Sometimes extraordinary things happen in the most ordinary places
In one of those small Southern towns where it seems inbreeding, the Ku Klux Klan and human servitude has given way to bouts of minor intolerance and biting the heads off catfish, Preacher and Billy Bob live their DNA-predestined lives. This means they shoot squirrels, chaw and spit, and say "dang" a lot. Wandering into their subtly bigoted Norman Rockwell reality is Blanche DuBois's eccentricity coach, Lily Jane Bobbit, all petticoats and pretentiousness. This weird waif has a singular goal. She wants to be in the movin' pictures. Upon setting eyes on her, Preacher and Billy Bob discover a goal all their own: each wants to lay her down in the tall grass and hope she lets them do their stuff. Problem is, they t'aint quite sure what that "stuff" is supposed to be. This hillbilly horseplay meanders around for about an hour until a shiftless con man named Mr. Quince (sounds like a character from Charlie and the Confederate Flag Factory) shows up, offering the unemployed a chance at working as merchant marines (oh boy!), and the hopelessly starry eyed a tryout for the trappings of Tinseltown via a talent show. All that's required is personal penury. Naturally, the atonally jaundiced Lily Jane shows up and warbles like Mandy Moore after a few too many Southern Comforts. Naturally, she wins. Naturally, it's all a big ruse and the townsfolk are left rube like and reduced to rubbing their riblets in disbelief. But our trio of teenage 'tards think they have a way of beating the flim flam artist at his own swindle. If they can just get back the strapped cash and return the city its meager dignity, everyone will be unrealistically happy, like Children on their Birthdays.
Sometimes, a movie fails because it tries to climb dramatic or comedic mountains so incredibly massive that it's near impossible to succeed. And they try even when they know they don't have the stamina or strength to attempt the feat in the first place. Other times, a film dies from poor writing, relying on clichés or arch dialogue to make pseudo intelligible points. And then there are those times when a character of such incredible cinematic stench is unleashed upon a movie and its unsuspecting audience that the smell knocks everyone into catatonia. Like that annoying burn on the roof of your mouth after eating a piece of molten pizza or the discomforting unease that results from being intestinally impacted after a long car trip, Tania Raymonde shows up within the first 15 minutes of Children on their Birthdays and proceeds to desecrate everything around her. She is supposed to represent a character of worldly wisdom, graceful gentility, and heartbreaking talent, mature and moralistic way beyond her tender pre-teen years. But instead, she comes across as a psychotic mongoloid with some manner of Peachtree speech impediment. Putting on a breathy, grown up southern belle bleat that makes her sound like a combination of Jayne Mansfield and Foghorn Leghorn and speaking lines that Tennessee Williams rejected while in a mint julep haze, our Tania's Lily Jane is quite possibly the worst character ever conceived for the screen. One look at her pre-fetal Penelope Cruz-ish puss and you'll beg for hysterical blindness. Having to listen to her burble on for almost two hours in that "alwahs de-pen-dead an tha ah-nus of strahn-gers" accent is enough to give you the vapors in your pants. Filled with enough didactic platitudes to make baby Jesus weep and so self-obsessed that you can actually see the entire world revolve around her, she is a character that only a hack novelist could love: unconventional, unrealistic, and overly literate. Try to translate that on screen, and you've got a surefire cure for personal happiness.
The loathsome Lily Jane merely exemplifies the gargantuan girth of problems with Children on their Birthdays. This is one slow movie. Unbelievably slow. Waiting for the deli to slice your lunchmeat slow. McDonald's drive-thru slow. Radioactive electrons expelling their multi-dimensional half-lives are screaming for this movie to hurry the hell up and get to a point. But aside from is leaden, lackadaisical pace, the movie believes in a world so sickly sweet that it would give sugar gliders, fruit bats, and honey bees diabetes. The small town pictured and the people populating it are more saccharine than a pixie stick pie. Everything is cordial and polite with well-bred civility shooting through the streets like soda crackers through a duck. This slice of Delta dung is so lost in its own world of cotillions, needlepoint, and antebellum bullcrap that you wish Sherman and his mad marchers would have simply wiped the separatists sots off the face of the Mason Dixon line. Children on their Birthdays just spends far too much time on the incredibly dumb story of Preacher and Billy Bob and their misguided affection for Lily Jane. The faux funny fussin' and a feudin' of these three young-ens feels like To Kill a Mockingbird if written by Lewis Grizzard and starring the younger, dumber Waltons. Truth is, the children's yarn is just pointless. Since we despise Lily Jane, we don't care if she gets a beau/Hollywood break or not. But buried beneath the mounds of moon pies and gallons of sweet tea is a decent little narrative; the love story between returning war hero "Speed" Throne and his unrequited love, widow Elinore. As played by Sheryl Lee (Twin Peaks) and Christopher McDonald (Thelma and Louise, Requiem for a Dream), these people are complex, heartsick characters who give off the air of noble Southern breeding without jawing like one of the Judds. Even Tom Arnold's Henry Hill like huckster makes a better story center than the three little fissures from the ass end of the plantation. Children on their Birthdays may have Truman Capote as its famous founding father (he wrote the short story this mess is based on), but with all of its reprobate elements, you'll swear Satan himself helped in the midwifery.
Lovingly presented in a crisp, clean, bright, and shiny full-frame edition from those purveyors of puzzlement, Artisan, the image given to Children on their Birthdays is a day-glo dreamscape. Scenes of Elinore near her rose bushes and the small town's primary colored homes explode across the screen in visual vividness. There has probably never been a better-looking transfer, hue wise, from this most unpredictable of DVD companies. Along with the wonderful visuals comes an equally exceptional soundtrack, in either Dolby Digital 5.1 (a real multi-channel treat) or 2.0 Surround (almost immersive, but not quite). The calming call of cicadas and the hazy laze of summer are really captured here. Along with a trailer that hails the film as some sort of minor masterwork (which it clearly is not) and a behind the scenes featurette that offers very little in the way of production notes but a lot of grateful genuflecting, we have a decent DVD package that houses one true horror of a family film.
It's hard to imagine what member of the household would cotton to this cinematic dust bowl. Kids will find it as dull as sentence diagramming day on Dragonball Z. Mothers and fathers will reach for their hidden copies of The Complete Real Sex to find a way to enliven their now dead desire to procreate. Even the elderly would rather spend a day at a Dr. Kevorkian fan fair than endure 102 minutes of this molasses in January mind mush. Artists like Hank Williams Jr. and Molly Hatchet may be convinced that somehow, in the grand scheme of things, the south is bound to rise again. But thanks to movies like Children on their Birthdays, damned Yankees will remember the proclamation of emancipation and once again stick a sock in that dreary rebel yell. Hopefully, it won't come to that, but it's about time someone remanded these over romanticized fairytales of sovereignty-seeking sharecroppers back to fictional oblivion where they belong. Sorry if that seems a bit harsh. Being punished by Children on their Birthdays will do that to you.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Making of Featurette
* Official Site