I have a question. Is it wrong to like a movie primarily because of its eye-candy? Is it such a bad thing if I enjoy a film because I get to stare, without punishment,
at something as stunning as Nicole Kidman? Because if it is, then being wrong is so sweet.
I say this under the influence of BIRTHDAY GIRL, the sophomore effort of director Jez Butterworth and a strange little British film that veers all over the place,
defying categorization. The film opens with a montage of John’s (Chaplin, interesting for the first time since THE TRUTH ABOUT CATS AND DOGS) repeated
attempts to film an appropriate video personal to post on a website called “From Russia with Love.” You see, John’s love life is so quiet (read: non-existent) that
he has decided to get himself a Russian mail-order bride. To add insult to injury, he’s in a seemingly dead-end job and is constantly being passed up for promotion
because of his “satisfactory” job performance. And he’s just too damn nice to do anything about it, so he wades through the mediocrity that is his life with a little
rain cloud over his head waiting for something interesting to happen to him.
That something interesting turns out to be Nicole Kidman as Nadia, John’s new Russian fiancée. John goes to the airport to pick her up, and on the way home is
quite surprised to learn that she hardly speaks any English. “Are you a giraffe?” he asks. “Yes,” she sweetly replies, and then proceeds to blow chunks out the
window of the moving car. I mention the chunks only because they become important to the plot later on. Trust me.
John, freaked by the idea of an exotic woman he can’t have a conversation with (something many men pray for daily), decides that Nadia has to go back to
Russia. But that night, while he lies in bed pondering his situation, Nadia comes in to see him. Okay, get this: Nicole Kidman walks into his bedroom. In pajamas.
And he asks her to leave. She replies by performing a sexual favor for him and then leaving the room. The next day, while John is at work, Nadia finds his stash of
bondage porn, and that night, she endears herself to him by letting him tie her up and live out his fantasies. It’s a little discomfiting to reconcile John, this meek
boy-next-door with a pasty complexion, with a fantasy involving rope, leather, and not a little bit of bruising, but, hey, why not? No one knew Marv Albert likes to
One day, Nadia, reading from a Russian-English dictionary that John bought for her, informs him that it’s her birthday. So John makes her a cake to celebrate.
Here I’d like to say that BIRTHDAY GIRL, for all its airiness, does represent the discomfort of language barriers very well. Amid the silent conversations and the
nervous glances are the frustration brought on by the lack of communication and the sweet affirmation that the exchange of ideas is not totally dependent on words.
Before Nadia can blow out the candles, there’s a knock at the door, and in come Nadia’s friend Yuri (Cassel) and his bandmate Alexei (Kassovitz). Through
scenes involving birthday cake with Stoli shots and conversations extolling the virtues of the set design of Cats, the four forge somewhat of a bond. But things
change, and a sequence of events comes into play that has John robbing the bank he works for and fleeing the police, all the while finding out things about Nadia
that he never knew. (The ad campaign for this film plays up Nadia’s secrets by saying “They have to survive her past,” but it’s really her present that is the focus.
Nicole Kidman continues her recent trend of turning in great performances with BIRTHDAY GIRL. Over half of her dialogue is in Russian, and she commands
these lines with a Meryl Streep-ish realism. As Nadia, she gets the Gwyneth-in-SLIDING-DOORS brown dye treatment, and it’s amazing to watch her character
take different turns. Watch her eyes, and it becomes hard not to believe that Nadia is a lot of different things.
As a film, BIRTHDAY GIRL is a lot of different things, too. It’s a bizarre little hybrid of genres that throws in odd little touches here and there, such as its fight
scenes scored to a department store Muzak soundtrack, or the seeming obsession it has with showing us Ben Chaplin in his underwear. It’s the peculiar offspring
of the romantic comedy and the thriller: call it a “romantic thromedy.” It’s a great bit of fun to be had, light and seriocomic, and an ultimately disposable treat that
sees the importance of fluff.