Birthday Girl (2001)
A Russian with Love
"Birthday Girl" is one of those annoying movies which only does half the job, it comes up with an amusing first half and then the second half meanders along delivering less and less interesting drama till it all but peters out. It is a shame as this comedy, crime caper from writers Tom and Jez Butterworth is full of potential and whilst suffering from an uneven tone delivers on that potential for the first 45 minutes. But then it is as if good ideas vanished only to be replaced by a series of obvious and disappointing conclusions.
As a bank worker in St. Albans, John (Ben Chaplin - The Truth About Cats & Dogs) leads a very boring life as he is passed over for promotion each year for being such a nice guy. Desperate to find love he succumbs to buying himself a Russian bride online and goes to pick up Nadia (Nicole Kidman - Eyes Wide Shut) from the airport. The trouble is that Nadia speaks no English and John no Russian but they muddle through and after a rocky but erotic start they start to bond. That is until two of Nadia's Russian friends arrive at John's home and they certainly upset things.
So "Birthday Girl" is very much a movie of two halves with the first half being the best with a lot of fun ideas and set ups. It's quite amusing watching the boring John discover that Nadia is not the English speaking Russian bride he paid for and leaves several snooty messages with the "From Russia With Love" website he ordered her from. And it is also amusing when Nadia distracts him by basically seducing him, be it relieving his uptight ness or finding his porn collection and going along with bondage sessions. That probably makes "Birthday Girl" sound like a bit of eroticism but in truth it isn't as all this leads to them bonding and growing close.
Now all this is good and with the introduction of Nadia's Russian friends "Birthday Girl" gets better because they almost push John out of his home, speaking Russian and making him feel uncomfortable especially in the way Nadia is with them. But this is where it all goes wrong because their arrival leads to an amusing twist, wonderfully played out in a dry fashion by Ben Chaplin but after than it all becomes ordinary. Without telling you what happens I can't go in to detail but what I can say is whilst the first half is fun and a little imaginative the second half is ordinary and in all honesty never fun. It is a case that after such a promising first half the pay off is disappointing.
Now the thing about "Birthday Girl" is that it is a very dry comedy, the character of John is one of the most monotone and boring people you will meet and is not funny in the normal sort of way. Yet this restraint is still funny once you get use to it and the unevenness of tone as we get restrained humour followed by scenes of nothingness makes it a little strange.
But I suppose what is for me the most disappointing thing is that with a cast which alongside Ben Chaplin also features Nicole Kidman, Vincent Cassel, Mathieu Kassovitz and a whole host of recognizable British comedians none of the performances really grabs you. Okay so Kidman is sexy as Nadia and Cassel as Alexei constantly saying the word John is amusing but you forget them not long after "Birthday Girl" has finished. They all end up very flat and you want more from them.
What this all boils down to is that "Birthday Girl" is an amusing, restrained crime caper. But it is a movie where a promising first half ends up never getting the humorous pay off it deserves.
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