Birthday Girl
Reviewed in February 2002
Director: Jez Butterworth. Cast: Ben Chaplin, Nicole Kidman, Vincent Cassel, Mathieu Kassovitz, Stephen Mangan. Screenplay: Jez Butterworth and Tom Butterworth.

Photo © 2001 Miramax Films/HAL Films
When, you ask, did Nicole Kidman find time to make Birthday Girl amidst her busy schedules for Moulin Rouge and The Others? In fact, she didn't: this forgettable British-set bauble was actually lensed, depending on whom you trust, between two and three years ago. Why would she fly to Britain to make this movie? Presumably, she was still in town between her forever-long shoot on Eyes Wide Shut and her ballyhooed West End debut in David Hare's The Blue Room. Why would she make this script, even with no travel difficulties and with all the time in the world? Now, there's an enigma. For her role as a secretive, Russian mail-order bride, I bet she got free language lessons, and she got to take them with a cast as easy on the eyes as she is: Ben Chaplin (The Truth About Cats & Dogs, The Thin Red Line) as her nebbishy husband, and Frenchmen Vincent Cassel (Brotherhood of the Wolf) and Mathieu Kassovitz (Amélie). They all get treated to as many close-ups as they could ever want, plus they frolic around in natural lakes, volley their non-sequitur conversations like badminton players, and seem to be having a good time putting on this little caper comedy.

Or is it a thriller? Or is it a romance? Or is it a trailblazer for a new kind of genre that actually, in some invisible way, necessitates multiple scenes of Nicole Kidman being beaten by these men and chained to radiators? Why do I have so many questions about a film whose plot barely exists, whose scripted characterizations are laughable, and whose nearly farcical conclusion reminds us that, as crime narratives go, we're a lot closer to Meg Ryan's French Kiss than to Ben Kingsley's Sexy Beast? Birthday Girl is over almost as soon as it's begun, which at least suggests a lack of pretension. Really, the picture largely exists to call the bluff of the most truly dedicated film fans: those who will still, in the age of VHS and DVD, plunk down eight bucks to see a film with no plot, no real tension, and no mentionable challenges for its coasting cast. For these people, people like me, moviegoing is a lot like metal-detecting: you have to drag your feet over a whole lot of new terrain, never knowing where you might find a little gem. And then one day you recognize that the whole beach, even the blandest, un-gemmiest stretches, has somehow endeared itself to you—if for no other reason, than because it was there to be walked. C

Permalink Home 2002 ABC Blog E-Mail