Red Snare

Kidman's Birthday Girl sets a trap, but for whom?

Jan 30, 2002 at 4:00 am
You've got to hand it to any romantic comedy that makes The Mexican and the Sweet November remake seem like enduring classics, which appears to be the chief objective of Birthday Girl. This slipshod sophomore effort from Jez Butterworth (Mojo) has been sitting on the shelf since its original release date of September 2000, and no doubt its arrival now involves what we'll call the Kidman factor. This isn't to say the celebrated Nicole doesn't dutifully impress here as a Russian mail-order bride with a covert mission. It's just that this clunky, inane vehicle sputters barely a few feet down its quaint English highway before you want to bid it "das vidania, dumb-ass!"

Dismayingly, Birthday Girl takes a huge wad of potential and blows it on trite delivery and implausible twists. The gist is that a lonely john named John (Ben Chaplin) works as a dull bank clerk and lives in a dull English suburb with a house full of annoying red ants apparently shipped in from Atlanta. Given this dire scenario, he scopes the Internet for a suitably exotic Russian squeeze, foregoing some horrific caricatures to land upon sexy Nadia (Kidman), who happily turns herself over to his custody. She's lovely, she likes him and she wants to play house, but John is put off by the fact that she smokes -- the British leading the world in anti-smoking crusades and all -- plus the fact she doesn't speak English, so she hardly utters a word. Considering he's a total perv with a cabinet full of B&D porn, the problem is?

Given his puzzling dissatisfaction, John tries in vain to return the merchandise, but Nadia convinces him -- largely in a very unpleasant close-up sequence of Chaplin receiving one off at the wrist -- that she's a keeper. The two quickly bond by way of bondage, tutored by instructional manuals with titles such as Hog-Tied Bitches -- one of about three laughs in the movie, particularly because Nadia finds the material so charming -- and soon the relationship looks like a go. As Butterworth and his brother and co-screenwriter, Tom, know, however, this is the ideal time for a plot point. They provide this "surprise" on Nadia's birthday, when her alleged cousins Yuri (Mathieu Kassovitz) and Alexei (Vincent Cassel) arrive at John's house for a stay of unknown duration. Mayhem ensues.

It's truly unfortunate that Birthday Girl shoots itself in the foot, because there are plenty of functional elements on hand. Although Chaplin might serve us better as an actual bank clerk than an actor, he passes here as a Pollyanna with much to learn about life outside his hermetically sealed world. The notion of the nebbish done in by the crafty moll has been done to death, but John's sarcasm ("It's so cold in Russia, you have to go to England and shag to keep warm?") mixes well with Nadia's onionlike layers of deceit. His increasing sympathy for her makes no sense whatsoever, but their emerging chemistry is adequate to sustain curiosity, even when he learns he's just one of the Russian team's long list of scams.

The movie's real drag comes with Cassel and Kassovitz, which is odd because they're currently wowing audiences in Brotherhood of the Wolf and Amélie, respectively. Even though they play the Russian gypsy shtick endearingly enough at first -- strumming guitars and cavorting while perfectly emulating Robin Williams' dubious accent from Moscow on the Hudson -- their performances become so chummy, so cutesy, that the threat they soon pose to John's existence arrives colder than yesterday's borscht. They're so smugly self-aware that Butterworth's movie falls apart.

Kidman, on the other hand, works hard for the money. Who knows what dosage she was slipped to convince her to do this project, but she punches the clock with aplomb. Word has it that she chose Birthday Girl because it was shot mostly in her native Australia at the same time Tom Cruise was there doing Mission: Impossible 2. That weird convenience notwithstanding, she's true to her own mission, and, barring a few slips into Boris-and-Natasha dialect ("You spleet my fucking leep!"), she's the movie's truest element.

It's a shame, then, that the rest of this endeavor is such a mess, from its clangingly false emotional manipulation to the silliest "suspense" music ever composed on a kazoo. Butterworth is full of good intentions, but we know where those lead, and Kidman's presence, though pleasant, is merely bait for the box office. Ironically, like the Molotov cocktail it aspires to be, Birthday Girl is simply a bomb.