Australian Jez Butterworth’s “Birthday Girl” is a curious film: for a purported comedy-thriller, it’s not very funny, and it generates remarkably little suspense. It does produce some scattered laughs and provides a role for Nicole Kidman different from those she’s played recently, but in the final analysis it doesn’t prove clever or surprising enough to be anything more than an innocuous time-waster. It also shifts tone all too abruptly, from mildly quirky farce to labored heist movie and then to fairly heavy drama; in the process it features a generous dose of brutality and violence that sits very oddly beside its benign beginning. That’s not necessarily fatal to a movie of this kind: after all, Stanley Donen’s “Charade,” surely a classic of the genre, had a few genuinely gruesome moments. But it also possessed ample compensations: stunning leads, beautiful settings, a witty script and a great concluding twist. This new movie, alas, has none of these. The best it achieves is mere adequacy, and mostly it’s a shambling bore.
The plot, crafted by Butterworth and his brother Tom, centers on a milquetoast English bankteller, John (Ben Chaplin), who orders a mail-order bride from Russia; but contrary to his specific desiderata, when Nadia (Kidman) arrives, she’s unable to speak any English–when John provides her with a dictionary in her own language, she merely points to the word meaning “birthday.” John plans to “return” her after throwing her a party, but there soon arrive two of her Russian “cousins,” ebullient Yuri (Mathieu Kassovitz) and hot-and-cold Alexei (Vincent Cassel). Before long the latter has turned savage and grabbed Nadia, demanding money from John; the bumbling fellow is forced to rob his workplace in order to save her. A succession of would-be twists follow, but they’re remarkably predictable, and all are presented in a desultory fashion that makes them seem even flatter. The big finish is confused and nasty, and ends with a whimper. (The final scenes also seem awfully dated in view of the post-September 11 tightening of airport security.)
Kidman, it must be admitted, works hard to put the material across, even though she’s mainly asked to pout, smile lasciviously, show some skin, breathe heavily and look good bound and gagged. She does stumble with the accent now and again, but none too seriously. Still, it’s definitely not her fault that “Birthday Girl” just seems to dribble on aimlessly. Chaplin isn’t much assistance to her; he has a pleasant hangdog charm, but his drabness doesn’t take him very far here, and the multiple humiliations John has to suffer before the picture ends are pretty awful. Kassovitz and Cassel don’t escape seeming grossly stereotypical as the Russian con-men. The remaining performers offer little more than cameos; this is pretty much a four-character piece.
Ultimately “Birthday Girl” is an ephemeral movie that delivers a lot less than it promises; it’s no wonder that, as with so many recent Miramax openings (“Texas Rangers,” “Impostor”) , its release was held up for quite a time. While one may applaud Nicole Kidman’s willingness to star in a small Australian film, moreover, if you want really to enjoy seeing her in such a cinematic setting, you’d be better advised to check out John Duigan’s perceptive “Flirting” of 1991. That’s an excellent film, and Kidman seems more genuine in it than she ever does here.