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Thursday, January 31, 2002

Lookin' for Slavs in all the wrong places

Movie: Birthday Girl

Posted on Thu, Jan 31, 2002 at 4:00 AM

**1/2
Our Rating: 2.50

Newly equipped with a handful of divorce papers and a Golden Globe, America's tabloid sweetheart, Nicole Kidman, shows up at a British airport in "Birthday Girl" wearing too much eyeliner and asking us to accept her as a Russian mail-order bride. Kidman's character, who may or may not be named Nadia, has flown in at the whim of John Buckingham (Ben Chaplin), a lonely banker who ordered her through an online service named From Russia With Love. When he takes Nadia home and learns that she speaks exactly one word of English ("yes"), John tries in vain to return her. Instead, he is visited by two of the girl's Russkie buddies (Vincent Cassel and Mathieu Kassovitz), who set up camp in his house and commence to make merry without fully explaining why they're there.

For a while, it seems that "Birthday Girl" intends to put xenophobia under a microscope. Are Nadia's pals really dangerous, as John fears? Or are they merely harmless party-niks who follow a different culture's code of behavior? And what about John, whose porn-inspired penchant for bondage is the defining aspect of the sexual relations he has begun to have with Nadia? Isn't he the dodgy one?

That promising line of inquiry collapses right around the time Kidman begins to speak in earnest. When she's nearly mute, she's fine; face acting is one of her key talents. And the sentences she spits out in high-speed Russian are highly convincing. But her attempt to speak English with a Slavic accent ... well, Natasha Fatale is more listenable. The movie comes down with a serious case of the stupids as well, with director/co-writer Jez Butterworth ("Mojo") so determined to craft a romance and a thriller that he abandons logic. There appears to be an entire act's worth of story absent from the film, a huge chunk of missing motivation that might illuminate John and Nadia's invisible path toward mutual emancipation. Left to its own skimpy devices, "Birthday Girl" instead endorses the dubious idea that nefarious foreigners should be embraced by limey lonely-hearts who (we're led to infer) have no right to expect anything better. I'm all for international good will, but come on.

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