- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 2, 2002

''Birthday Girl" subjects a sex-starved Englishman to humiliating yet liberating abuse from a trio of Russian deceivers.

Another end-of-century closeout from Miramax, the film lingered on the inventory shelf for 18 months or so, perhaps to prevent "Impostor" and "The Texas Rangers" from feeling lonely.

The unlucky leading lady, Nicole Kidman, is cast as a mercenary mail-order bride from Russia. She answers to the name Nadia and feigns an ignorance of English upon meeting her hapless suitor, Ben Chaplin as John, a bank teller waiting to be fleeced.

Nadia moves into John's suburban residence in a development that borders the countryside and begins to appease the sexual frustrations that led to his unwise decision to solicit a consort from an agency called From Russia With Love.

When Miss Kidman finally gets a bit of dialogue in English, it turns out to be self-incriminating: "Bad day." So it was when she fell for this trifle, a fable about the delights of being hoodwinked and going on the lam that recalls a Jonathan Demme wrong number of 15 years ago, "Something Wild," without emerging any the wilder. Which is to say, any more rewarding in a complacently perverse vein.

Having settled into John's cul-de-sac, Nadia surprises him with two visitors from Russia, her jovial "cousins" Alexei (Vincent Cassel) and Yuri (Matthieu Kassovitz).

Mr. Cassel, the most dangerous member of the gang, played the roughneck cop in Mr. Kassovitz's crime thriller, "The Crimson Rivers," imported last year. The two French actors also can be seen in two current imports, Mr. Cassel as an aristocratic wretch in "Brotherhood of the Wolf" and Mr. Kassovitz as the apple of the heroine's eye in "Amelie."

Threatened with blackmail for his indiscretions, John promptly steals a bundle from the bank. As a practical matter, the filmmakers might as well leave him trussed up on a motel toilet, waiting to be collected by the police.

Improbably, he's permitted to escape the motel, with clothes and car still within reach. Evidently, Alexei and Yuri aren't as heartless as they seem. Nadia also remains within reach, abandoned by lover Alexei upon revealing that she's pregnant.

John and Nadia share a round of slaps and recriminations before cementing a desperate alliance that turns the tables on her confederates.

This second feature of Jez Butterworth, who evidently is regarded as a promising humorist in England, was written in collaboration with an older brother, Tom.

The two don't seem to be compensating for each other's weaknesses. The movie seems an all too transparent pandering venture, aimed at movie producers who lust after amoral misadventure as forlornly as clueless, charmless John.

A school of thought in popular entertainment associates creativity with ungoverned impulses and lawless behavior. It finds expression so often in poorly contrived caper comedies or crime thrillers that an observer is tempted to confuse filmmaking aspirations with low aspirations in general.

"Birthday Girl" pretends that John has somehow lucked into a new and superior personality by learning how to deal ruthlessly with Alexei and Yuri and then embracing a fugitive existence with Nadia.

Of course, there might be a few snares back in Moscow, especially if racy Nadia is determined to have her baby. Setting up John and turning him into an amateur outlaw is the easy part, from the standpoint of cinematic practice and cliche.

It would be more of a novelty to see him finessing illegality and domesticity in Russia.


TITLE: "Birthday Girl"

RATING: R (Persistent sexual vulgarity; occasional profanity and graphic violence; fleeting nudity and simulations of intercourse)

CREDITS: Directed by Jez Butterworth.

RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes


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