"I think communication is key."—John Buckingham (Ben Chaplin)
"I should say that some people, on the face of it, might not understand what I'm doing," narrates John Buckingham. "They might think it was a bit sad." A lonely man in a lonely town, John needs love. So he buys it, in the form of a mail-order bride from Moscow. His would-be soul mate, Nadia (Nicole Kidman) does not speak English, smokes too much, and wields her sex appeal with the brute force of a mob hitman.
But when her birthday rolls around and two fast-talking Russian friends (Vincent Cassel and Mathieu Kassovitz) show up to take over John's life, the fairy-tale romance turns into a dangerous con game where everyone turns out to hide dark secrets.
Something Wild turned down several notches, Birthday Girl desperately wants to be—well, I am not quite sure what it wants to be. It starts off trying to be charming and romantic, a fish-out-of-water comedy that never really develops. Then it aims for eroticism, as Nadia discovers John's porn habit and tries a few sexy moves. But the sex feels sort of tacked on. Then, Alexi and Yuri show up (with noticeably French accents). Then double-crosses, then Nadia turns out to be a crook, then the plot stops dead in its tracks so we can pair up John and Nadia as lovers on the run learning to trust each other again and we are supposed to sympathize with them and then—oh, I'm lost.
Writers Tom and Jez Butterworth throw in a plot twist every five minutes, veering from mild comedy to mild thrills, as if trying to make up with speed what their script lacks in coherence. The plot requires John to act like an idiot to make it all come together, when such chaos invariably requires a stronger lead character to hold things together. He is too undeveloped in the first half for us to find much humor in his hapless attempts to connect with Nadia, and he is too much of a loser for us to root for during the film's attempts in the second half to become a crime thriller. And Nadia, solid as Kidman's technical skills are, comes across as a complete cipher. Kidman's noticeable detachment does not help matters much. Worst of all, she and Ben Chaplin have no chemistry on screen whatsoever, making their love/hate/love relationship fizzle.
In Something Wild, Melanie Griffith's bad girl was enticing, Jeff Daniels' nebbish was well-developed enough to empathize with, the leads had actual chemistry, and Jonathan Demme handled the shift between comedy and thriller deftly. No such luck here. Word is that Birthday Girl stewed on the shelf at Miramax a couple of years before the studio decided to release it (it was filmed in 1999), cashing in on Kidman's A-list status in the past year. The delay did not help. Birthday Girl feels decidedly unsure of itself, as if it cannot commit to its characters or its genre (romantic black comedy, a serviceable niche if done right). Chaplin and Kidman end up turning in lightweight performances, because there is nothing in the script to really hang on to. Nothing sticks for long.
The DVD package from Miramax is decent enough to pass muster, but is as unexceptional as the film itself. There is a solid anamorphic transfer and 5.1 mix, but there is little in the film to show off either one. Extras are spare. There is a six-minute featurette that focuses on the Russian mail-order bride angle and the comedy. The cast and director Jez Butterworth chatter mostly about how everybody had to learn to speak Russian phonetically. There is also a music video (not directed by Butterworth) of Nicole Kidman and Robbie Williams singing the classic lounge hit "Somethin' Stupid" while living it up in a Kennedy-era suburban utopia. This cute parody has twice the charm and wit of the entire movie it has to share disc space with. Maybe if Kidman and Williams had made the movie together, there might have been a little chemistry between the leads.
Of course, maybe Miramax was trying to send a message when they tacked "Somethin' Stupid" on the film to begin with…
Nicole Kidman has shown that she can hold her own as the femme fatale (To Die For) when she has the right material to guide her, but the script to Birthday Girl is a scattershot affair that gives her little to work with. The rest of the cast seems equally lost. The result: a mess that is not very funny, sexy, or exciting. And for an alleged romantic comedy-thriller, that is the kiss of death.
Jez Butterworth is remanded into custody to take a writing class. The cast of Birthday Girl is given a stiff fine and released. Court is adjourned.
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