Birthday Girl

Directed by Jez Butterworth
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Ben Chaplin, Vincent Cassell, Mathieu Kassovitz.
MPAA Rating: R for sexuality and language.

Review by Matt Heffernan <matt@filmhead.com>
February 16, 2002

How does one promote a film like Birthday Girl? It doesn't fall well into any category, so defining it in a thirty-second commercial is impossible. The strategy taken was to promote it as a thriller, but it's really not that thrilling. It's more of a comedy, but it is often funny for the wrong reasons. Anyway, let's talk about the premise first.

Ben Chaplin plays a lonely banker in a small English town who is having trouble with his love life. As a last resort for fulfillment, he goes on the internet and gets himself a Russian mail-order bride. At the airport, the bride turns out to be Nicole Kidman, which is surely a pleasant surprise, except that she doesn't seem to speak English as her bio had stated. And she smokes as well, but all is forgiven when she lets him enact all his sadomasochistic fantasies with her.

In exchange for kinky sex, he gives her a Russian-English dictionary. One day, she reads enough of it to tell him that it's her birthday. Their private celebration is interrupted by a couple of her Russian friends (Vincent Cassell and Mathieu Kassovitz), who proceed to crash at their house for a few days. When Cassell gets a little too friendly with Kidman, Chaplin tries to throw them out. Then he learns that the Russian trio aren't quite what they appeared to be.

One would think that since none of the actors were actually Russian, that their secret would be about their nationality, but no, they are really Russian. Of course, the men are both well-known French actors (Cassell is currently in Brotherhood of the Wolf and Kassovitz is in Amelie), and their Russian is decidedly French-sounding, which can be confusing. Nic does her best with the language, but their non-Russianness is one source of unintentional comedy.

Chaplin, on the other hand, gets the intentional comedy, which is pretty good. He plays a bumbling, lovelorn guy well, and his narration at the beginning sets the film's light tone. When the plot heats up, the tone is discarded, but isn't replaced with anything interesting. Then the film wants to end after the second act, but keeps going for a slow third act with sporadic fits of plot advancement. At this time, it tries to regain the tone from the first act, but fails.

And so it has at the U.S. box office. It has yet to open in the U.K., where the film has already spawned a hit single: a cover of the cross-generational Sinatra duet "Something Stupid" by Robbie Williams and Kidman, who now fancies herself a singer after Moulin Rouge. I don't know if it will help its chances over there -- unless they play the song's steamy video over the end credits.


For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Birthday Girl (2001)

Here's some merchandise for sale at Amazon.com
Birthday Girl, a screenplay by Jez Butterworth -- Paperback


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Review © 2002 Matt Heffernan