Screenplay : Jez Butterworth and Tom Butterworth
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Nicole Kidman (Nadia), Ben Chaplin (John Buckingham), Vincent Cassel (Alexei), Mathieu Kassovitz (Yuri), Stephen Mangan (Bank Manager)
All good things must eventually come to an end, and Nicole Kidman's incredible professional streak in 2001—which included superb performances in Moulin Rouge and The Others, both of which are generating Oscar buzz, a victory in the media battle of who would come out looking better in her divorce from Tom Cruise, and being named Entertainment Weekly's entertainer of the year—has now ended with the British import Birthday Girl, a sleazy, weirdly uncomfortable would-be crime-thriller/black comedy.
With black-dyed hair and a bad wardrobe of heroin-chic rags and too much eye make-up, Kidman stars as Nadia, a Russian mail-order bride sent direct to John Buckingham (Ben Chaplin), a small-town sorry sap of a British bank clerk with no interpersonal skills and an ant problem in his kitchen. John wants to send Nadia back when he finds out that she doesn't speak English, but he quickly changes his mind after she discovers his stash of S&M porn videos and allows him to play tie-up with her. Besides the kinky sex, Nadia spends most of her time chain-smoking and knitting, occasionally flipping through the Russian-English dictionary John has given her so she can inform that that it is her "baath-day."
Their birthday party for two is interrupted by two of Nadia's old friends from the homeland, Alexei (Vincent Cassel) and Yuri (Mathieu Kassovitz). Claiming to be musician-actors looking for work and a place to crash, Alexie and Yuri fulfill all the required stereotypes of the unshaven, obnoxious, vodka-swilling Russian hoodlum. They are obviously trouble, but John allows them to stay at his house until all hell eventually breaks loose. Not surprisingly, Nadia doesn't turn out to be quite the innocent mail-order ingenue he thought she was, and he ends up on the run from the police after having to rob his own bank of 90,000 pounds.
Director Jez Butterworth, who cowrote the script with Tom Butterworth, tries to keep the tone light, but the material he's working with is simply too tacky for the approach. The movie winds up being as ugly as the bruises that adorn much of Kidman's lilly-white frame for most of the movie (at first they're from her and Tom's sex games, but they later derive from the numerous beatings she takes from just about every man who walks on-screen). Kidman is game in her performance, but the script requires her to go through so many personality changes that, by the end, she is a complete enigma who elicits neither sympathy nor anger—we simply have no idea what to make of her.
On the other hand, there's not much to do with Chaplin's monotonous performance as John, the ultimate button-down square who's so dumb that he tries to fool a professional criminal into thinking a toy gun is the real thing. When he gets smacked down for his pathetic effort, it's hard to feel bad for him. Chaplin spends most of the movie looking hopelessly lost, and even when he finds out he's been the ultimate dupe, he still doesn't muster much energy or anger. He's an emotional black hole in the center of the movie, making it impossible to identify with him, much less feel sympathy for his plight.
There are a few moments that work, but they're so sparse and isolated that they don't add up to much. In general, Birthday Girl simply irritates with its rag-tag jumps between comedy and sadism (emotional and physical), although the fact that its final shot seems to be an homage to the final shot of The Graduate (1967) may suggest that the whole point was alienation, anyway.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick