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Birthday Girl

Starring Nicole Kidman and Ben Chaplin; Mathieu Kassovitz, Vincent Cassel
Screenplay by Tom Butterworth & Jez Butterworth
Directed by Jez Butterworth

IN SHORT: Definitely for us grownups. [Rated R for sexuality and language. 95 minutes]

To the gentlemen in our audience, consider this scenario: Nicole Kidman is standing in your bedroom. In a nightgown. Imported to your corner of the world, to serve as your bride. The only word of English she knows is "yes." Now, consider the possibilities. If all you're looking for is the cheap thrill, Ms. Kidman provides that in spades. If you're big enough to sit for a good story and one interesting variation of an adult relationship, you'll get much out of Birthday Girl, which gets a boost out of the arthouse circuit courtesy of its name brand star.

John Buckingham (Ben Chaplin) is the English gent with the fevered imagination or, more than likely, an awesome emptiness on the inside. One which cannot be filled by the local girls, which his voiceover narration numbers at nearly none. Availing himself of an Internet matchmaking service, this shy and inept man orders up Nadia (Kidman) who is everything he seems to want. Beautiful, intelligent, a non-smoking, English speaking perfect mate. Except that, once he finds her at the local airport, she turns out to know only one word of English and chain smokes Marlboro's like a fiend.

Be aware that Chaplin is the only English speaker in the first half of the story. Kidman delivers all of her lines in Russian and most of those are accompanied by subtitles. If subtitles bother you more than hardcore language, occasional violence and nudity, then you'll want to stay away. Nadia stumbles through the English language with the help of a Russian-English dictionary that John gives her and the first revelation out of her mouth is that it is her birthday. She wants a party.

Which is exactly what happens with Yuri (Mathieu Kassovitz) and Alexei (Vincent Cassel) show up at the door. They may be actors. They may be musicians. They are definitely not who they say they are and only the audience has a clue, thanks to those selfsame subtitles. While mild-mannered John allows the pair to bunk -- Yuri provides some translation services -- when he has had enough of the company and asks them to leave, things get ugly and the story starts taking on more than one interesting turn.

Y'see Alexei has a knife. Yuri makes demands. Nadia isn't exactly who she says she was and John is the poor, isolated sap in the middle who is about to become the victim of a major scam. More than that falls under our "do not reveal the Third Act" rules but the twist is a good one. There are several more forced plot twists towards the end, some of which just don't fly with this American mind. Birthday Girl is particularly British from slang to an apparent laissez faire attitude on the part of the screen police figures. The flaws are typical of indie films which go into production before all the i's are dotted and plot discrepancies fixed. There's nothing major here to wreck the film, which keeps the focus on the relationship (such as it is) between Kidman and Chaplin's characters.

Kidman delivers yet another good performance, one not overwhelmed by flash (Moulin Rouge) or a tired old ghost story (The Others). Chaplin is a good compliment. While the story needs a bit more polish towards its end, we were not disappointed by Birthday Girl.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Nine Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Birthday Girl, he would have paid . . .


Birthday Girl is better than most of the films that aim at the arthouse. If you prefer that circuit, you'll do well to search it out. It isn't so drop down must see that you couldn't wait to cuddle up with a loved one and a video.

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