[MOVIE REVIEW]Trouble arrives by mail in droll ‘Birthday Girl’

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[MOVIE REVIEW]Trouble arrives by mail in droll ‘Birthday Girl’

If you’re so near the end of your rope that you’re sending away for a mail-order bride, and then when she arrives she’s Nicole Kidman, it seems to me that you’ve already gotten so far ahead of where you could have expected to be in life that you ought to regard everything else that ever happens to you as trivia. If Nicole Kidman turns out to have violent Russian friends who show up at your door one night and ransack your life, you ought to take it with a certain philosophical cheer. Yes, you say, right now I am tied up and gagged, but I saw Nicole Kidman naked. They can’t take that away from me.
John (Ben Chaplin), the tepid British bank clerk who orders up Ms. Kidman in the droll dark comedy “Birthday Girl,” might or might not be that philosophical ― it’s hard to tell, at least when the gag’s in his mouth. What he definitely is, is in need of a good time, on the scale of when Homer Simpson took Ned Flanders to Las Vegas. Quiet and well-mannered, John gets decent performance reviews at the office, wears a tie with short sleeves, keeps a very neat apartment and, when he sees an ant on a piece of furniture, crushes it with a napkin, then folds the napkin and puts it in his pocket.
It should surprise no one that such a guy would have a stash of sadomasochistic pornography, or that when wife-shopping on the Web site “From Russia With Love” he would be drawn to Nadia, who, as played by Ms. Kidman, looks like trouble in a jar. Here is a woman to wreck your life with, a messy-looking, mascara-smeared waif in the rain who constantly smokes and who, despite having claimed online to speak English, does nothing but smile sweetly and say “yes.” (“Are you a giraffe?” “Yes.”)
John tries to get the Internet wife merchant to take her back, even though, as mentioned previously, she’s Nicole Kidman. That finally occurs to John, too, after he wordlessly presents her with a Russian-English dictionary, and she wordlessly presents him with the pornography she found in his bedroom. They get along merrily from there ― or they seem to, until two “friends” or “cousins” of Nadia’s show up unannounced one night. Could it be that Nadia is not all that she seems? You’ll probably guess “yes,” and you will be correct.
The scenes between Chaplin and Kidman have actual spark and wit, and there’s a funny, rather understated subversiveness at work throughout “Birthday Girl,” even though it’s a pretty thin movie and not particularly unconventional, the allusions to kinkiness notwithstanding. Hollywood storytelling conventions assert themselves, as they must always do: timid guy finds his courage; bad girl realizes what she’s been missing out on, etc. But there are clever moments every few minutes, and it’s never actually boring, and it’s over in an hour and a half anyway.

“Birthday Girl”
Comedy / English
93 minutes
Now playing

by David Moll
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