Birthday Girl

In the past couple years, Nicole Kidman has really blossomed into an acting powerhouse. Just last year, she starred in two very different roles in Moulin Rouge and The Others, and acted the heck out of both of them. Regardless of the quality of each film (the first was a mess, the second was good), Kidman's performance was riveting in each case. In Birthday Girl she again takes on a completely different type of role, and again succeeds in giving a remarkable performance. She has the ability to effortlessly disappear into each new role, making it seem like she is really a courtesan, English wife, or, as she is here, a Russian mail order bride. It's Kidman's presence here that lifts Birthday Girl above its so-so story.

Nadia (Kidman) is John Buckingham's (Ben Chaplin, Lost Souls, The Thin Red Line) bride. She is absolutely not what he expected. For one thing, she speaks no English, even though she was somehow able to correspond with him fluently before. John is an ordinary, boring man. He works in a bank, has no friends, and works in a bank. Nadia is his attempt at finding love. He initially believes that they can grow to love each other, but wants a refund once he meets her. Nadia is smarter than she looks. She garners John's affections by the quickest route possible: sex. Their inability to communicate does not matter once the kinky bondage begins. Things change at Nadia's birthday party, when her cousin Alexei (Matthieu Kassovitz, Amelie, Jakob the Liar) and his friend Yuri (Vincent Cassel, Brotherhood of the Wolf, Shrek) show up. Nadia is not the person she claims to be, and John's life turns upside down with the arrival of the two other Russians.

Here, the movie undergoes a dramatic shift in tone, which is the main problem with Birthday Girl. Writer director Jez Butterworth (Mojo) and co-writer Tom Butterworth cannot decide what exactly the movie is about. Is it a romance, a dark comedy, or a crime movie? Apparently, it is all of the above. Butterworth (Jez) does not spend enough time on any of these elements in order to form a believable, coherent plot. The dark comedic tones do run throughout the movie, and provide some needed laughs in an otherwise empty story. On a refreshing note, Birthday Girl is unpredictable. This is not a conventional story, so there really is no predictability in the story. There is no way to predict what the characters are going to do next, and for once it isn't clear halfway through the movie how it is going to end. This is nice, but then it feels sometimes like the Butterworths don't know what's going to happen either.

Chaplin should be the center of Birthday Girl. This movie is in a way about a personality transformation he undergoes. As written, he is so ordinary that he is dull. This does not bode well for Chaplin, who really cannot do anything to break out of his character's mold. Kidman, Kassovitz, and Cassel steal the show. When Kassovitz and Cassel arrive, they inject a much-needed sense of energy. Before their arrival, Chaplin and Kidman react to each other with a minimal amount of exertion. Oddly enough, all of the actors playing Russians are not. Kidman is Australian, and Kassovitz and Cassel are both French. There is a lot of dialogue in Russian, and all three are able to pull off convincing accents. Still, the true star of Birthday Girl is Kidman. Go and watch this movie just for her performance, if nothing else.

Haro Rates It: Not Bad.
1 hour, 33 minutes, English and Russian with English subtitles, Rated R for sexuality and language.

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