Nicole Kidman is so good in Birthday Girl, she almost makes the audience overlook the surrounding film.
As a Russian mail-order bride betrothed to a shy bank clerk who's into bondage, Kidman does a lot of things, all of them right. Her Russian accent (to these American ears at least) is plenty good. Her little-girl-lost persona is vulnerable without being cloying. She makes us believe her character is desperate enough to want to make this unnatural pairing work.
She's about the only sure-footed thing on display in the film. British writer-director Jez Butterworth has constructed a house of cards that, by all rights, should collapse midway through the movie. The only reason it doesn't is the filmmakers' determination to stretch things out long enough to justify a feature-length film. It seems to matter little that audiences will stop caring about these people and these events long before the final credits roll.
Poor John Buckingham (Ben Chaplin) has long been unlucky in love. Rather than solving his problem rationally - such as noticing that a female co-worker always is smiling at him - he resorts to the easier, less challenging path: He orders a bride from the former Soviet Union.
What he gets is a scared Nadia (Kidman), who shows up at the airport knowing English, and with her eyes cast permanently downward. John - apparently not noticing that he's been mailed Nicole Kidman, for goodness sake! - immediately wants his money back.
Unfortunately, John can't get the people who arranged this transaction on the phone, so he's stuck with Nadia for now. The plucky young couple eye each other warily; neither seems to know how to please the other. Then they rifle through the other's possessions and come up with a few ideas: John finds pictures of the family Nadia left behind. Nadia finds bondage videos.
Thus do the first seeds of true love bloom. But just when it appears that things might work out, a pair of Nadia's friends from the old country (Vincent Cassel and Mathieu Kassovitz) show up and move in, putting new strains on the relationship.
Audiences probably will spend the first half of the film rolling their eyes at this improbable romance. Then, Butterworth and his brother, Tom, who collaborated with him on the script, make the story head off in a completely different direction. What had been a slight drama about mismatched souls becomes a slight caper film involving a suitcase full of money and evil Russkies.
Rather than enervating the audience, that turn in the story points up the shallowness of the whole film. The chemistry between Chaplin and Kidman never seems real. And John's character is so all over the map, finding reserves of strength no one except the screenwriters knew he had, that he quickly becomes more comic than tragic.
Birthday Girl has been sitting on the shelves at Miramax for more than two years. Doubtless, it is being released now to capitalize on Kidman's remarkable 2001; she's been much-lauded for both Moulin Rouge and The Others. See it to be reminded (if you need further reminding) of this actress' remarkable range. Otherwise, take a pass.
Starring Nicole Kidman, Ben Chaplin
Directed and co-written by Jez Butterworth
Released by Miramax Films
Rated R (Adult language, sexuality)
Running time 93 minutes
Sun score **