Directed by Jez Butterworth. USA. 2001.

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Some actors are completely nebulous. Time after time they slip in and out of characters, no matter how varied all the while making it look easy. Their fans like it that way. Some actors will always be best in certain types of roles. Julia Roberts (Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride) will forever be the sweetheart. Ray Liotta (Unlawful Entry, No Escape) will stick in everyone's mind as the smouldering villain. And Ben Chaplin is meant to be the trusting innocent. In The Truth About Cats and Dogs, his sincerity made half the female audience fall in love with him. In his role as the jilted soldier in The Thin Red Line, the other portion turned to the men who had dragged them to this war movie, and demanded to know, "Why aren't you more like that?" This was OK, because although Chaplin's character was indeed a romantic, he killed people, so that balanced things out. He works so well in the little-boy lost type of roles that it comes as a total shock to find him here in such an unlikeable part.

Birthday Girl is the story of John, a busy bank manager, and Nadia, the email bride he orders. A mix up occurs, and the girl he paid for doesn't materialize. Instead of an English speaking, Russian born, literature and film buff, he is faced with a non-English speaking Nadia, with an entourage of sleazy relatives.

Birthday Girl. All Rights Reserved.Nicole Kidman (Dead Calm, The Others) stars as Nadia. Surprisingly her Russian accent isn't half bad, but it's nearly impossible to believe that a woman this lovely and bright could possibly be desperate enough to auction herself off to the highest bidder. That aside, Nadia's initial scenes with her husband to be are deliciously awkward. The tension when they first meet in the airport had audience members squirming in their seats. It's the rapid personality change that she undergoes partway through the film that undercuts her performance, shutting the viewers away from a character they were beginning to feel sympathy for. 

Ben Chaplin (Lost Souls, Washington Square) stars as the withdrawn financier. Here again is an actor who's handsome face damages this plot line. I don't know about over in the United Kingdom, or the States, but over here in Nova Scotia the topic of Chaplin comes up, and the consensus seems to be that he would be in need of a pair of wading boots to get through the heaps of women tossing themselves at his feet. Although Chaplin's John is well acted, his character is wholly unlikeable, and in certain scenes makes the audience uneasy. (Like the moment where Nadia discovers John secret video collection, or the glimmers of an abusive personality showing themselves.) It's fine to try to stretch your legs as an actor by playing a villain. Mel Gibson did it to great effectiveness in Payback. It's simply that Chaplin's role can never seem to decide which particular personality he wants to have; shy and retiring in one scene, dominator of the next. Chaplin's fans love him as the wide-eyed innocent. Birthday Girl isn't going to net him any new admirers.

There are some interesting comments being made about the growing trend of starting relationships over the Internet in this vehicle. As Chaplin's John notes on more than one occasion, the Internet does provide a way for people to connect with those they might not otherwise encounter. It does also raise the point that trusting everything you see online, can sometimes get you badly, badly burned. Birthday Girl brings up the issue that meeting people that you form a first impression of online should always be a case of buyer beware. Its' cynical tone says that one in a million people might in fact meet their true love online, but nine out of ten times that twenty four year old jeans model from Sweden isn't all she says she is. 

It's the frank examination of trust in technology that holds your attention in Birthday Girl, but it just isn't enough to make you ignore the fact that this movie suffers from a problem that ran through The English Patient. There are no likeable characters in either production. To make the thriller that Birthday Girl aspired to be, the audience needed to be able to root for a character, but here there are no candidates for endorsing. Kidman and Chaplin are convincing in their roles, but as Nadia is shallow and callous, and John is calculating and spineless it makes Birthday Girl a waste of admission money.

Jen Johnston
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