Hey, if all Russian mail-order brides looked like Nicole Kidman, I guess I would sign up for the service too. It's just too bad that the new film "Birthday Girl" (IMDb listing) doesn't have more fun with its own concept, instead electing to head down the well worn path of bank heists and Russian tough guys who down vodka by the gallon.
John (Ben Chaplin) is a mild mannered bank teller living alone in a house in the English countryside. Tired of the dating world and what it has to offer him, John decides to order a Russian mail bride to live with him. The bride comes in the form of Nadia (Nicole Kidman), a beautiful young woman who doesn't speak a word of English. Nadia isn't what John had in mind for a mate, and he soon tries to get rid of her. It's only after Nadia learns of John's more kinky sexual preferences that John decides he can give this peculiar pairing a try. On her birthday, two old friends of Nadia's arrive unannounced, Yuri (Vincent Cassel) and Alexei (Matthieu Kassovitz), and invite themselves in to stay at John's place. Soon enough, the evil intentions of the duo come to surface, and John realizes that Nadia might not be the innocuous spouse he thought she was.
"Birthday Girl" has a corker of a setup, with the first 40 minutes of the film going solely to establish the relationship between Nadia and John. It's a quirky pairing, with the scenes of sexual exploration providing endless fascination, not only for the delicious lurid details of John's limitless imagination, but more because there hasn't been a recent film that was willing to devote such time to the establishment of chemistry, much less the kinky kind. Director Jez Butterworth provides a marvelous opening act of mystery, sex and distorted sweetness that when the film kicks over to Guy Ritchie-land, it broke my heart. There is a film to be made in Nadia's and John's relationship, without all the guns and double-crosses to get in the way.
And get in the way they do. The entire plot of "Birthday Girl" hangs on one plot twist: that John would rob a bank to buy Nadia's way out of trouble. It is the one little plot thread that holds the entire movie together. But I don't buy it. Even with the laborious time spent setting up the John and Nadia coupling, I still couldn't believe that John would endanger himself or his job in such a drastic way. The film doesn't bother to show John's consideration of this choice, only choosing to show the aftereffects. It makes it hard to get inside John's head, and that's one place the audience needs to be for the film to resonate.
The film goes quickly downhill from this point, moving away from relationships and motivations and into bullets and brawn land. This doesn't do the movie any favors, instead taking what little goodwill was left and destroying it with typical British film conventions.
As the two leads, Nicole Kidman and Ben Chaplin do a fine job keeping the tension high between their two characters. While Kidman had been on a roll lately with her fine ("Moulin Rouge") and downright perfect work ("The Others"), "Birthday Girl" is a reminder of what Kidman used to do in movies: look hurt and cry. It's a step backwards for the actress, but considering the film's long incubation period, I choose to see this performance as a reminder of what Kidman has hopefully left behind. I can't say the same for Chaplin, aside from an occasional scene or two. A bland actor who refuses to express any kind of emotion, Chaplin makes no case for himself as the emotional center to "Birthday Girl," and leaves only the kinky sex as his character's defining trait.
Butterworth has already gone on the record in saying that Miramax (the studio behind the film) has taken the picture away from him and reworked it. This being said, it makes sense that "Birthday Girl" has been so carelessly pared down to its most audience-pleasing essentials. Whether the blame lies with Butterworth or the suits at Miramax, the final result is still pretty ineffective cinema.
Filmfodder Grade: C