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(2002) (Ben Chaplin, Nicole Kidman) (R)

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Drama/Comedy: A bank clerk's life is turned upside down when he gets more than he bargained for with his Russian mail order bride.
John Buckingham (BEN CHAPLIN) is a lonely bank clerk in the suburbs of London who's never been able to find the right woman for him. Accordingly, he decides to try his luck with a Russian mail order bride. Unfortunately, when Nadia (NICOLE KIDMAN) arrives at the airport, John realizes there's been a mistake as she smokes and doesn't speak a word of English.

Unsuccessfully attempting to contact the responsible agency, John tries to inform Nadia that things won't work out between them, but when she satisfies his needs regarding sex and particularly his obsession with bondage, he begins to accept her. Soon, and despite their language barrier, the two become something of a couple.

Yet, John's newfound happiness is shattered on Nadia's birthday when her Russian "cousins," Alexei (VINCENT CASSEL) and Yuri (MATHIEU KASSOVITZ), suddenly show up on his doorstep. As they make their way into his home and life, John becomes increasingly uncomfortable with their presence, particularly regarding the way Alexei treats Nadia.

From that point on and as his world is turned upside down by a sudden and rather shocking revelation, John does what he can to keep his wits about him, all while trying to figure out what to do regarding his relationship with Nadia.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
While all sorts of people adopt children from foreign countries, I don't know of anyone who's ever obtained a spouse by way of the mail order bride program that, for some unknown reason, always predominantly seems to feature Russian women.

You've undoubtedly seen the ads for such services in magazines and newspapers or on TV, and the proliferation of them means that they must be successful in one way or another, although it's unclear whether that's financially for those who run them or romantically for the couples.

Either way, there's something a bit peculiar about the whole arrangement, especially since it somewhat has a permanent prostitution ring to it as men use money to buy women to be their spouses with whom they presumably then have marital relations. Accordingly, I view such ads and the programs/services they tout in a "buyer beware/you get what you pay for" philosophy just as applies to X-ray glasses and sort of electrical "exercise" device designed to build muscle and burn fat by zapping you while you watch TV.

The filmmakers behind "Birthday Girl," the quirky and moderately engaging and entertaining black comedy of sorts that stars Ben Chaplin as a man who orders a mail order bride played by Nicole Kidman, seem to share the same viewpoint.

Rather than serve as a cautionary tale of sorts, however, writer/director Jez Butterworth and co-writer Tom Butterworth (who worked together on "Mojo") use the idea as the jumping off point for their story. While it doesn't always ring true or work as well as one might like, it's interesting enough that one never really loses interest in where it's headed or what sort of cinematic presents it might deliver.

Defying any concrete genre categorization as it's part drama and part romantic comedy - with some suspense/thriller elements thrown in for good measure - the film never really excels at any of them, but has enough elements from each to make this a decidedly unconventional effort (at least when compared with usual Hollywood standards).

In the beginning, the film seems as if it's going to be a slightly dark, but otherwise quirky and whimsical comedy about the protagonist's misadventures in finding love. The sudden introduction of the Russian woman's "cousins" seems only to add to the comical frustrations. The brotherly filmmaking team, however, decides to turn them into far more of a catalytic twist that pushes the film off into a new direction and genre style.

The revelation and change of course might take some viewers by surprise, but, like most of the film, isn't played strongly enough to have as much impact - comedic, dramatic or otherwise - as it could and should have possessed. While some may appreciate the more subtle approach the Butterworths have taken with the material, I often found it lacking in that extra something special to make it really stand out.

For better or worse, Ben Chaplin ("Lost Souls," "The Truth About Cats and Dogs") embodies the protagonist in much of the same sort of subdued manner. Although that allows for some greater comic misfortune to affect him - and supposedly is designed so that we more easily sympathize with his plight - I found such a portrayal as stealing some of the film's thunder.

Far more interesting, engaging and charismatic is Nicole Kidman ("The Others," "Moulin Rouge") as the Russian mail order bride who doesn't quite meet his expectations. Although some viewers may have a little (or a lot of) trouble with her Russian accent sounding a bit too much like a stereotypical caricature, and there's not a tremendous amount of depth to her character as written, Kidman is quite good and always fun to watch in the part.

As the two men who complete the upheaval of the protagonist's life, Vincent Cassel ("Brotherhood of the Wolves," "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc") and Mathieu Kassovitz ("Amelie," "Jakob the Liar") deliver performances that are credible enough for the roles. Even so, I believe that with a bit more humor in their parts, they would have been more palatable to viewers.

Overall, the film doesn't really present anything new and its subdued approach prevents it from being as funny, dark and/or edgy as it seems it wants to be. Decent and different enough to earn a passing grade, but ultimately nothing brilliant or special, "Birthday Girl" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed January 22, 2002 / Posted February 1, 2002

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