Birthday Girl flies by so quickly that you barely break a sweat during it. Jez Butterworth’s comedy-thriller is little more than a melange of quirky moods, but it’s a zippy little ride while it lasts, one that never falls into a rut.
Ben Chaplin plays John Buckingham, a lovelorn bank clerk in a small burg outside of London, who orders a Russian mail-order bride over the Internet. The woman he selects is advertised as an English-speaker, but when Nadia (Nicole Kidman) steps off the plane she knows only one word—“yes”—and she’s a beaten-down looking thing who can barely bring herself to look him in the eye. When the agency that arranged the set-up doesn’t returns his calls, John has no idea what to do with this chain-smoking little bird who’s landed in his house. But Nadia figures out how to break the ice after finding John’s stash of porno magazines, and the two begin a passionate affair, with Nadia throwing herself at John whenever he tries to catch his breath. By steps she becomes something like the wife he craved, at least until the night of her birthday party, when two Russian guys who obviously spell trouble show up claiming to be her cousins.
The script, by Butterworth and his brother Tom, follows the trail blazed by Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, beginning as a lighthearted study of a yuppie’s liberation by a mysterious young woman, and shifting into darker hues as the guy gets more than he’s bargained for. But Birthday Girl has an original tone that’s part fire and part ice: John’s fury after Nadia and her friends betray him is lined with ragged intensity, yet the couple’s confrontation in a roadside diner maintains a comic edge even as they lash out at each other. Despite its barbed dialogue and the presence of a near-psycho, the movie never brutalizes its audience, choosing instead to keep us off-balance by continually turning up unexpected facets of its characters. Things never turn ugly as they did in, say, Shallow Grave—the threat of violence is mostly used to maintain a fairy-tale tone. Birthday Girl is a softie at heart, and in touches like the bank’s sensitivity-training sessions it even shows the slightly daft satiric spirit of Bill Forsyth’s gentle comedies.
Nicole Kidman continues her remarkable run of the last couple years with another perfect performance. She’s come a long way since To Die For, when she seemed to be aping what a good actor would do; now, she’s inhabiting characters with her body and soul. She’s particularly impressive in Birthday Girl’s first hour, when she has to express herself largely in silence (the small amount of dialogue she does have is in Russian), forcing her to express Nadia’s vulnerability in controlled double-takes or by despondently slouching over a table.
The only thing wrong with Birthday Girl is that it’s missing a last act. It simply screeches to a halt in the middle of what begins as a chase-scene, and the end-credits are rolling before all the loose ends have been tied up. The material is so thin that ending the movie practically in mid-sentence should be a crippling blow, but with a keep-’em-guessing plot and an affectionate take on its screwed-up characters, Birthday Girl feels more like an unfinished sketch than a waste of good drawing paper.
– Tom Block