Birthday Girl

(Jez Butterworth, UK/USA, 2002)


The premise of a mail order (or, these days, email order) bride from Russia recalls the dire Australian comedy Russian Doll (2001). The fact that the mild-mannered hero works in a bank and is tempted to perform an outrageous deed recalls a classic film noir, Scarlet Street (1945). The way in which the plot veers from domestic comedy to road movie, with a bit of colourful violence and villainy thrown in, recalls the Melanie Griffith vehicle, Something Wild (1986).

Birthday Girl is the kind of movie that has the viewer ticking off such borrowings and comparisons in his or her mind to stave off the boredom. A weak British confection by the Butterworth brothers (director Jez, writer Tom, producer Steve), its central novelty attraction is the spectacle of Nicole Kidman sporting a Russian accent and flipping a few porno mags for hints on how to win her man.

The man is John (Ben Chaplin), and the Butterworths labour mightily to render him as both a loveable, lonely guy and a selfish, ungenerous oaf. When Nadia (Kidman) sweeps into his life with no English words but some deft bedroom moves (this was one of at least three mainstream movies in its year prominently featuring oral sex), John believes that love may have finally come calling.

It only takes the unexpected arrival of two rambunctious Russian lads, Yuri (Mathieu Kassovitz) and Alexei (Vincent Cassel), to cast a dark cloud over John’s fantasy. Since these two French actors were the director-star team from that grim, urban drama La Haine (1995), the audience instantly expects a dose of action.

So the film duly changes course and genre, becoming an affair of hotel rooms, international airports and stolen money, with Nadia recast as an ambiguous femme fatale.

Despite its best attempts at pace, style and hipness, Birthday Girl is a terminally dreary movie, notable only for those moments when certain, badly handled details take on a surreal life of their own.

Consider, for example, the undue weight placed on a particular sexual peccadillo of John’s – the fact that he fancies a mild spot of bondage. His act of tying Nadia’s wrists to the bedpost recurs as a near-nightmarish motif. We see her bruises at length, and a dark look comes over John’s face whenever caustic references are made to his presumed kinkiness. The filmmakers feign a moralistic prurience on this point, with risible results. At least in Something Wild, the lovers-on-the-run had the good sense to go with the flow.

© Adrian Martin August 2002

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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