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BIRTHDAY GIRL(director/writer: Jez Butterworth; screenwriter: Tom Butterworth; cinematographer: Oliver Stapleton; editor: Christopher Tellefesen; music: Stephen Warbeck; cast: Nicole Kidman (Nadia/Sophia), Ben Chaplin (John Buckingham), Vincent Cassel (Alexi), Mathieu Kassovitz (Yuri), Kate Evans (Clare), Sally Phillips (Karen), Stephen Mangan (Bank Manager); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Steve Butterworth/Diana Phillips; Miramax; 2001-UK)
“A disposable film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“Birthday Girl” was made before Nicole Kidman’s stardom in Moulin Rouge and The Others, as Miramax cleverly withheld this trifle and only released it after Nicole was hot. It’s a comedy that suddenly turns nasty, and then offers a rather confusing plot. The film loses all sense of proportion and a great deal of its charm.

Set in the Hertfordshire small-town of St. Albans, where a buttoned-down, reticent, lonely bank teller, John Buckingham (Ben Chaplin), goes on the Internet website of “From Russia With Love” to hook up with a mail-order bride. After looking at many photos and checking resumes, John decides on the beautiful Nadia (Nicole Kidman). When meeting her at the airport he’s disappointed despite her being a looker, since he specifically asked for a non-smoker and someone fluent in English. For him “communication is the key,” it’s more important than looks. He becomes visibly upset when he asks Nadia in the car ride home: “Are you a giraffe?” And, she replies “Yes.” John then calls the website to get a refund on his merchandise. But they don’t answer his calls. When he gives her a Russian-English dictionary, she only uses it to kill ants that have infested his suburban house. Things improve when she discovers his stash of porno magazines and videos and she reenacts those kinky porno scenes in their lovemaking. John now thinks maybe he could live with this arrangement. This light-hearted comedy setup is all finely handled and amusing. It’s cute to see the articulate Nicole speak only Russian and have subtitles provided for the viewer.

Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.

Nadia announces it’s her birthday. John is ready to blow out the candles on her cake just as two old acquaintances from the homeland, her English-speaking cousin Yuri (Mathieu Kassovitz-French director of Hate, which starred Cassel) and his friend Alexi (Vincent Cassel-French actor), join the celebration. These two are not welcome but refuse to leave, as John is jealous but can’t seem to get rid of them. When he asks Yuri how long he is staying in town, Yuri responds “plans are for architects.” Soon John “takes a walk on the wild side” and becomes a wanted man who also loses his job, his dignity, his reputation and his wife. It turns out that they’re a trio of con artists working the Internet to arrange marriages for Nadia with men they can rip-off.

After the film turns real nasty, it then switches tones and wants to be likable again. But the many plot twists take the emotion out of the film, the comedy is lost, and none of these characters seem worth caring about. This comedy/thriller is a prime example of a disposable film. The brother team of playwright-turned-filmmaker Jez Butterworth and Tom Butterworth come up empty after a fast start. Jez was director and co-writer with Tom. Their other brother Steve was co-producer. What they really needed was another brother to edit out the devious plot twists and return the light-hearted comedy footage probably lost on the cutting room floor. When the film was a comedy, Kidman was sassy and funny.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”