Nicole Kidman has a career’s worth of movies to be proud of — from Dead Calm (1989) and To Die For (1995) to Eyes Wide Shut (1999), with such honorable efforts as The Portrait of a Lady (1996) in the intervals — but Birthday Girl isn’t one of them. Following closely upon that camp-till-you-cramp debacle Moulin Rouge! and the high-toned tension of The Others (both 2001), she returns in this small mess from England that wants to be a dark comedy but ends up just blatantly inept.
Though Kidman is the box-office draw, the film really belongs to Ben Chaplin, a fine British actor with an impressive pedigree (Washington Square, The Thin Red Line, etc.). Chaplin plays John Buckingham, a young, frustrated-in-love bank trustee who resorts to the Internet in hopes of mail-ordering himself a bride. Although he stipulates “English-speaking” along with “pretty” and “intelligent” on his order form, the cute little Russian care package who gets off the plane at the local airport seems to know only one word (the best one) of our mother tongue: “yes.”
This sexy waif (Nadia) is, of course, Kidman — who, for purposes of the yarn, learned to speak (more accurately, fake) Russian. Strikingly sensuous as ever, the Australian actress tries hard but utterly fails to convey a Russki impression (anyone with Slavic language experience will wince). And the two otherwise excellent young French actors — Vincent Cassel (Brotherhood of the Wolf) and Mathieu Kassovitz (Amélie) — who impersonate her Russian partners in crime hardly fare better. It’s all transparently fake enough to make one wonder, “Why not use Russian actors instead?” The answer is simple: no Kidman, no star power.
But the overriding problem is with the script, co-authored by director Jez Butterworth and his brother Tom. Somehow two weeks of kinky sex and wordless sharing are enough to turn John into Nadia’s fool and a bank robber to boot. Cassel and Kassovitz chew up the scenery, trying valiantly to generate a storm of that legendary Muscovite bravado — but what few presents Birthday Girl has in store for us come from Chaplin’s timing and expressiveness.
In a word: nyet.
George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.