Tuesday, 22 August 2006

Birthday Girl (DVD) (2001)

Her character can't speak English, looks cute, but is good with guns. Ergo, Nicole Kidman's in a role Milla Jojovich turned down.

Perhaps the Butterworth brothers should have left it to the French. After all, Birthday Girl does start out as a quirky French or French Canadian comedy.

In an absolutely boring town lived a bank teller who had an absurdly inflated job title and just celebrated a meaningless job promotion that granted him a key that opens one of the safes. He’s a sad geek of a man whose most comfortable interactions with other humans is through the glass panel at the bank. Understandably that will do no wonders for his love life (which consists of a few magazines), so he gets a mail order Russian bride from the internet. That’s what a sad sack our protagonist John is. You’d expect him to end up picking up a rather huge, hairy and bearded woman at the airport arrival lounge, but he ends up with Nicole Kidman, smoking like a chimney and speaking no word of English aside from "Yes...?"

There are only a few ways to develop the initial absurd situation, really. The oddball, introverted bank teller and the clueless immigrant eventually touch base using a Russian-English dictionary and some adult video tapes. That could develop into the sexy and quirky genre that the French and Spanish are adept at. Midway through the film, Nadia has a "Bad Day" (birthday) and some of her compatriots drop in to visit, possibly staying for the long term.

Somehow this quirky sex comedy turns into a black comedy, then morphs into a thriller (the compatriots force him to rob his own bank!), then a suspense thriller (more plot twists as it turns out not everyone is who they appear to be), and then an all-out adventure with Ben Chaplin as almost an action star. And so on.

The problem is for all its twists and turns, the Butterworths refuse to allow the plot to linger long enough to build up something solid. So while the furious genre switching can be appreciated in itself, this appreciation is lessened by the fact that the film isn’t a particularly good comedy, thriller, or adventure at all. There’s just no sustaining the feel or sensibilities of a new genre after one plot twist, because all the movie is gearing up to is the next plot twist and transition to another genre.

More disturbingly, Ben Chaplin’s nerd act does not evoke any emotions. Are we to pity him? But he isn’t really a humiliatingly sad case because the movie has moved on to its next twist before we could get to know him as a sad case. Is Nadia likeable? She certainly looks hot, but the helter skelter plot twists gives the filmmakers enough time to show much of her character in its various guises for us to get acquainted with and grow to like.

It hurts even more because when you think about it, the plot holes are everywhere in the movie. For instance, why does John find the guts to rob his own bank when Nadia is held as a hostage? Why does he not alert his colleagues, since the getaway car is a mile away from the bank? And why is it a mile away in the first place? Why, when John becomes a wanted fugitive, does he walk into hotels, eateries and airports without anyone noticing him? The immense stupidity of the plot holes make the plot twists even more unbelievable and weak.

While it is easy to get caught up with the fast-paced plot and reversals, your enjoyment of the film may take a slight hit if you begin to think about the film too deeply. Birthday Girl is still worth the rental, just make sure you’re not in a critical mood when watching this.

First published at incinemas on 22 August 2006

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