“Separated at ‘Birth'”
by Scott Mantz

“Birthday Girl”
Nicole Kidman, Ben Chaplin
Directed by Jez Butterworth

Those Ukraine girls really knock me out! Nicole Kidman adds some spice to Ben Chaplin’s boring life in “Birthday Girl”

Hollywood is full of irony. Even though 2001 started off as a horrible year for Nicole Kidman following the breakup of her marriage to superstar Tom Cruise, it ended up being the best year of her career. Not only did she wow moviegoers with her spectacular performance in Baz Luhrmann’s love-it-or-hate-it musical, “Moulin Rouge,” but she also earned high marks for her hypnotic turn as a desperate mother in last summer’s spooky surprise hit, “The Others.” With a year like that, one can only imagine what Kidman has in store for her next movie.

Well, be careful what you wish for. The fact is, even Kidman’s sultry, sexy performance in “Birthday Girl” can’t save the film from being the uneven, uninvolving, and ultimately forgettable romantic comedy that it is (or isn’t). Not only is the film remarkably similar to last summer’s Angelina Jolie-Antonio Banderas turkey “Original Sin,” but “Birthday Girl” can’t decide if it wants to be a quirky, charming date flick or an offbeat, suspenseful thriller. Too bad it comes up short on both counts.

John Buckingham (Ben Chaplin) is a lonely British bloke with a boring job, a pesky ant problem, and a yearning desire for female companionship. He orders the woman of his dreams over the internet in the form of Nadia (Nicole Kidman), a Russian mail-order bride who can’t speak English and smokes like a chimney. John immediately tries to “return” Nadia, but when her wild sex drive finally kicks in, he changes his mind (after all, who wouldn’t?). The honeymoon is soon over when Nadia’s cousin (Mathieu Kassovitz) and his creepy friend (Vincent Cassel) show up out of nowhere to crash the party, and John realizes the hard way that his dream girl may turn out to be his worst nightmare.

Given how difficult it is for men to meet women these days, one can certainly understand John’s desire to throw in the towel, go on-line, and do it the so-called easy way. At the same time, it’s hard not to ask yourself “well, what did you expect?” when his life starts to spin wildly out of control. As the movie’s only sympathetic character, you can’t help but root for him, but at the same time, you can’t help but feel like he’s getting what he deserves.

Director Jez Butterworth (who also co-wrote the film with his brother Tom) tries to blend elements of comedy and suspense, but he comes up short in his attempt to bring them together with the complexity of his characters. As a result, the film drags in spots and takes a few detours before it reaches an unsatisfying conclusion that, quite frankly, doesn’t make much sense.

Had it not been for the presence of Nicole Kidman, “Birthday Girl” would have been an even bigger party pooper than it already is. She rises to the occasion to give a sexy, mysterious performance, and her presence alone is what makes the film barely watchable. Ben Chaplin (best known as the male lead from “The Truth About Cats and Dogs”) is serviceable enough at the film’s resident patsy, but unfortunately, he lacks the type of irresistible charm that would have made his character more appealing and engaging.

Before you come to the conclusion that “Birthday Girl” feels like a step down for Kidman after the one-two punch of “Moulin Rouge” and “The Others,” consider that the film has been sitting on the shelf ever since its completion back in 1999. Miramax may be taking advantage of “Birthday Girl” by releasing it during the awards season where Kidman’s name keeps popping up, but take my word for it. When it comes to this Russian mail-order bride, just say “nyet.”