Birthday Girl (2001), Run-time 93mins, Cert 15.

Director - Jez Butterworth.

Writers - Jez Butterworth & Tom Butterworth.

Starring - Ben Chaplin, Nicole Kidman, Vincent Cassel & Mathieu Kassovitz.

 

Premise - John (Ben Chaplin) is a loner whom has been in a dead end bank teller's job for the past ten years. In an effort to find someone and end his loneliness he orders a Russian bride over the internet. However, when Nadia (Nicole Kidman) shows up she can't speak a word of English, is a smoker and is constantly being sick. John tries to phone the internet company to organise a refund, but in the meantime Nadia has found John's porn stash and they start to live out some of John's fantasies. Time moves on and the two are enjoying life, that is until Nadia's first birthday in England when her two 'cousins' (Vincent Cassel & Mathieu Kassovitz) show up at John’s door....

Birthday Girl was made before Nicole Kidman’s recent flurry of success (Moulin Rouge, The Others, The Hours etc), but Miramax wisely held off on a release until after her star had risen to the peak at which it is now. A clever move indeed to get more cash by the studio, but is the film any good?

Not really is the short, but sweet answer. The film has some good points, but it also unfortunately has its share of problems.

The main problem that I had with the film is the continuous changes in tone that occur. All the way through the film the tone shifts dramatically from light romantic comedy, to dark black comedy. The changes are jarring and don’t work. The two tones of the film are totally at odds with each other and give the film a nasty disjointed feeling that grates badly. One moment you could be watching a scene with Nicole and Ben having a laugh about something when BAM, something completely out of sorts and unexpected happens. This kind of tone change can work (see Punch-Drunk Love for an excellent example of this), but here it just feels wrong.

Nadia’s Russian cousins are also a problem for the film. Whilst they are competently acted (by Frenchman no less) they again don’t feel like they are in the right film. I was reminded heavily of the two Eastern European’s from the awful ’15 Minutes’ by this pair. They are constantly goofing around and I found it hard to believe that they got away with what they have been doing for so long without getting caught.

Another small problem is that re-shoots for the film took place in Australia. Now, whilst this may not sound unusual you have to take into account that the film is set in a small London suburb. The change in scenery and weather is incredibly apparent to anyone with eyes in their head. Leafy, overcast locations are replaced by sun kissed locals and it is just a basic error that hurts the later stages of the film.

One big plus that the film has in its favour is the chemistry between its two leads. Ben Chaplin is a fine British actor that cut his teeth on the very funny Britcom, Game On. He has since gone on to star in the likes of The Thin Red Line and The Truth About Cats & Dogs. He may well have found his niche in the romcom genre as he is likeable and amiable enough without being irritating like say Hugh Grant.

Nicole Kidman is one of my favourite actresses and until very recently she was in my eyes very underrated. Here she spends the majority of the film speaking Russian and the rest behind a believable (although I am certainly not an authority) Russian accent. Even without direct speech Chaplin and Kidman practically sizzle and some of their scenes get very steamy.

Fans of weird, but wonderful UK comedy show The League of Gentlemen (nothing to do with the recent summer flopbuster) should keep an eye out for a couple of the shows stars in cameos. They should really make a film of that show, not sure what the Americans would make of it though…..

At a sprightly 93 minutes director Jez Butterworth at least keeps things moving along. Also, with his brother Tom they manage to raise a few chuckles through the script. One really funny scene sees Chaplin and Kidman swapping books, I wont say any more than that but it is very, very funny.

Birthday Girl is a very schizophrenic film. It’s not really sure if it wants to be a straight, light romcom or a dark, black comedy. In the end it doesn’t succeed at either and only the chemistry of the two leads and a reasonable script save the film from being a total disaster.

 

/10.

If you enjoyed Birthday Girl then try – Punch-Drunk Love, The Truth About Cats & Dogs.

Poster Quote – Where’s my real present?