John Buckingham is a smart, polite, and respectable British banker who orders a Russian bride over the Internet and winds up with far more than he bargained for in Birthday Girl.
The movie starts out with a lot of promise, but unfortunately it quickly devolves into a mean-spirited, and rather dim-witted, farce.
From Russia With Love
R for sex, language, violence
John (Ben Chaplin, Lost Souls) receives quite the package in the form of his new bride, a siren by the name of Nadia, played with gusto by Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge). She can’t speak a word of English, but she’s fluent in “body language.” The former distresses John, but the latter more than makes up for it.
Shortly after Nadia’s arrival, she reveals it’s her birthday and she invites a stateside cousin, Yuri (Mathieu Kassovitz, The Fifth Element), and his friend Alexei (Vincent Cassel, Elizabeth) over for an improvised birthday party. The two men are pure Russian stereotypes; the biggest surprise about them is that neither one utters the line, “America! What a country!”
The plot thickens after Yuri and Alexei arrive – it turns out Nadia may not be the simple sexpot she portrays herself to be. However, the thickness of this plot is of the same consistency as Nadia’s Russian accent. The foursome face one highly implausible development after another and react to their situations in ways that are neither conventional nor funny.
To their credit, Kidman and Chaplin shine in what should have been a sweet-and-sour confection of a movie. Instead, the ill-conceived storyline buries their talents in a murky mess. Even with a slight running time of 93 minutes, it becomes a long haul watching these two wade through to the film’s poorly executed conclusion.
The most disturbing thing about this movie is that it’s being pawned off as a romantic comedy. There’s even a snazzy music video hitting the airwaves with Kidman and Robbie Williams in a bubbly and lightheaded cover of the Frank and Nancy Sinatra tune “Somethin’ Stupid.”
However, that video is a thoroughly misleading presentation of the film’s content. That is, of course, unless your idea of “romance” is bouts of fisticuffs between lovers, supposed lovers, and former lovers.
Maybe the movie was trying to be a black comedy, but if so it’s a failure. This is the kind of black comedy at which even David Lynch would thumb his nose. It’s certainly not a thriller, either. If Birthday Girl qualifies as a thriller, then Dumb and Dumber is a docu-drama.
Regardless of how this square peg of a movie ultimately gets pigeonholed, it no doubt looked better on paper. Or at least one can only hope.
There’s somethin’ stupid going on all right and it’s because the main characters in Birthday Girl allow themselves to do one stupid thing after another. If you’re going to be stupid, at least be funny in the process instead of being frustratingly clueless.
Therein lies the film’s biggest problem: The characters are empty and they are willing to let themselves get screwed (literally and figuratively) time and again. The biggest mystery is the attraction between Nadia and her Russian cohorts. Since we don’t know more about their relationship, when she gets cut out of their little scheme, her pain has no depth and we don’t care.
Second-time director Jez Butterworth (who made his directorial debut in 1997 with Mojo) roped his brother Tom in on Birthday Girl to help with the writing chores, and brother Steve to help produce. What the Butterworth trio proved here is that they have seen a lot of movies and they know all the ingredients for making one. In this case, though, they sprinkle a lot of quirky elements on top of the cake, but the overall recipe leaves a bitter taste.