Birthday Girl

reviewed by Steve Sailer

UPI, January 31, 2002


"Birthday Girl," an English romantic comedy that mutates into a crime thriller, was filmed all the way back in 1999. Delays like this normally send a dire signal, but Miramax has cleverly timed its release to synchronize with Nicole Kidman's appearances on those movie awards shows.

Kidman's wildly different but always glamorous turns in the period movies "Moulin Rouge" and "The Others" have made her into one of the hottest stars around. So, "Birthday Girl" will get more attention than otherwise.

And that's not a bad thing. Although this comedy-thriller from the three Butterworth brothers isn't all that comic or thrilling, it's still a decent enough movie. As is typical in modestly budgeted films, the pace sometimes lags and it lacks the richness of detailing that a big American budget can make possible. But the script is reasonably clever. And Kidman's performance as a Russian mail order bride who appears to speak not a word of English single-handedly lifts "Birthday Girl" from a two star to a three star flick.

Her role presented Kidman with the kind of technical challenges that made Meryl Streep's reputation. And she delivers, mastering the distinctive body language of a Russian woman and speaking plausible-sounding Russian.

Ben Chaplin ("The Truth about Cats & Dogs") plays a rather handsome but shy suburban London bank clerk who orders a wife off the "From Russia with Love" website.

He's a dull dog, but he appears to believe that Russian women have followed Jon Lovitz's famous advice to single women: "Ladies, lower your standards!" As one real-life online vendor of Russian brides puts it, "Their idea of the perfect man is someone with a stable job who is not an alcoholic and will love them and be faithful to them."

When Chaplin picks her up at the airport, rather than breaking into ecstatic prayers of thanksgiving that God and Aeroflot have delivered a Nicole Kidman look-alike to him, he is peeved that she isn't what he'd asked for: she smokes and can't speak English.

Chaplin tries repeatedly to return her to sender, but Kidman uncovers the key to his heart when she finds his stash of bondage porn. And thus, love blossoms.

Tawdry as this is, it's still rather sweet. There is something strangely appealing about the idea that arranged marriages between strangers can work. Our culture's obsession with finding one's unique soul mate can be daunting, especially for the shy. Thus, perhaps, the appeal of mail order bride movies is that they insist that love is so natural that, given the chance, little impediments like smoking and mutual incomprehensibility can't get in its way.

My wife pointed out, however, that, "If a man wants a wife who looks like Nicole Kidman, but he doesn't look like Tom Cruise, then he deserves whatever he gets."

So, on Kidman's birthday, a couple of shady-looking Russian fellows arrive, claiming vaguely to be her "cousins." Chaplin meekly lets them sack out on his living room floor. The scarier-looking of the two, however, starts showing signs of being possessive of Kidman and jealous of Chaplin.

At this point, "Birthday Girl" had the opportunity to delve into the explosive flip side of the mail order bride business: the Russian man's attitude toward Russian women selling themselves to wealthy Westerners.

The hooligan seems to view Chaplin as not half the man he is, yet who enjoys the carnal favors of this lovely Russian girl merely because he was born in a country with a soulless but prosperous economy.

Unfortunately, "Birthday Girl" veers away from any further attempt to get inside the heads of the Russian men. They end up portrayed as the stereotypical drunken Russkie no-goodniks you've seen in a dozen movies since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Ironically, back in the Seventies and Eighties, when the Russians were our sworn enemies, the film business treated them more respectfully. Except in a few "surprise" hits such as "Red Dawn," "Rambo," and "Top Gun," the movie industry reserved most of its contempt for those on our side who wanted to stand up to the Soviets.

In its second half, "Birthday Girl" increasingly resembles an uninspired remake of Jonathan Demme's spectacularly inventive 1986 film "Something Wild." Like nice-guy Jeff Daniels in that movie, convention-bound Chaplin must step outside the law to fight the bad guys on their own terms, prove himself a man, and win back his true love, who had turned out to be more complicated than he had imagined.

While the two French actors who play the Russian crooks aren't going to make anybody forget Ray Liotta's stunning arrival in "Something Wild," Kidman lives up to her newly earned reputation, making "Birthday Girl" a reasonable choice for adults bored with Super Bowl hype.

Rated R for sex, non-bloody violence, language, and one shot of the Birthday Girl in her birthday suit. home page

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