No Candles for This 'Birthday Girl'

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 1, 2002

Every actress has one. I am speaking of that species of showy anti-narcissism that is actually the highest form of narcissism called the Bad Hair Movie.

Michelle Pfeiffer's was "Love Field." Jessica Lange's was "Frances." Meg Ryan's was – well, just about any of her late films.

And now here's Nicole Kidman's, called "Birthday Girl," made more than three years ago and released now only to take advantage of the Nicole-mania going on after "Moulin Rouge" and "The Others" and The Divorce.

The important stuff first: The hair is very bad. It looks like it's fresh out of the spin cycle and she can't do a thing with it. Key question: Is it as bad as Ryan's hair in "Kate and Leopold"? Hmmm, that's a toughie. When I was in hairdresser's school, we had a certain snob thing going against the kind of artificial-straw blondness of the Ryan look, with its thatchy frizz. But still, it has a certain I don't know what.

Kidman's hair has a certain I do know what; it's mousy. It looks like dead rodent DNA reimagined as human protein battered by brutally unsoftened water oh-so-cold from the turbulent Neva. It's supposed to be "Russian." Really, is someone out there not getting it yet that Russian women are absolutely among the world's most beautiful? So Kidman's hair is like a Russian gal's after, say, the Battle of Stalingrad. It's so dull and dark and flat and it adheres so fiercely to her skull that it seems to have come out of a spray can. It's supposed to make her "real." She's as real as any staggeringly beautiful woman with bad hair.

She turns up in "Birthday Girl" as Nadia, mail-order bride. A guy is so dorky he can't get a date, so he buys a wife over the Internet, just like you'd buy a porn vid or a Filipino butterfly knife. And who shows up at the airport on the bride-came-C.O.D. day, looking all mousy-sad and glum as last night's blintzes, but Nicole Kidman?

And you know what? Bad hair and all, she's still a kick in the pants. Man, talk about hitting it out of the park on the first at-bat! Is this guy lucky or what? After all, he can hang a baseball cap on her and go to town, no?

Well, maybe not. Soon thereafter her Russian gangster friends Yuri and Alexei are scaring the geekiness out of him.

The gimmick is that after arriving in his dreary uptight house in the burbs, she actually falls in love with him. He's one of those scrawny types, diffident and repressed, but basically all right. He's only missing one tiny thing: a personality. It's Ben Chaplin doing a Dustin Hoffman imitation; he plays a bank clerk with a social life atomically unverifiable if you don't count his hectic dating scene with various porn mags. He has a tryst that very night with the June 7, 1999, issue of Bound Vixen. But Nadia is somehow moved by his clumsiness, his earnestness, his need. This happens a lot in real life, by the way.

The movie bears some similarity to the fondly remembered "Something Wild," with Melanie Griffith, Jeff Daniels and Ray Liotta, Jonathan Demme's witty 1986 fable. It's a movie fantasy, guy style: A wild 'n' crazy gal comes along and liberates an uptight male. Yeah, where's mine? Oh, that's right. I'm not in a movie. But it has this difference from "Something Wild" – it's not as good. Not in any single department. Ben Chaplin is not half so good as Jeff Daniels, and Kidman, sporting a Boris-and-Natasha accent, isn't half so wild a something as Melanie Griffith's very wild something. The only close comparison would be between Ray Liotta as the "Something Wild" psycho, a star-making turn, and Vincent Cassel as the "Birthday" psycho, possibly also a star-making turn.

Cassel, a Frenchman lurking here and there in that cinema for a few years, plays Yuri, the bad news from Moscow. Without going into movie-ruination detail, it's no coincidence that he and his pal Alexei (Mathieu Kassovitz, another French guy) have shown up at the home of somebody who works in a bank.

Cassel's Yuri almost makes you believe it: He is all loose cannon, violent, willful, drawn to knives, a martial artist and perpetually on the verge of improvising an atrocity. Chaplin's dweeby John Buckingham has as much chance against him as I would, or as much chance as Daniels's character did against Liotta's. But Demme managed to find a way to have Daniels triumph plausibly, without violating the internal logic of his own movie; this director, Jez Butterworth, cannot.

But there's a deeper problem with "Birthday Girl": its utter inability to sustain a tone. It's all over the road – sometimes farce, sometimes horror, sometimes thriller, sometimes police procedural. And the truth is, no one in it is particularly sympathetic. You're supposed to be with Chaplin's Buckingham, but he's such a capital-L Loser (pronounced LUUUU-ZERRR!), it's hard to give a snicker about him. Though the movie is in some sense an account of his arrival at manhood, that manhood seems provisional in the end.

Behind her great beauty, Nadia seems as sleazy as her two buds. She denies she's a prostitute, but if she's not, she's some other sort of criminal. What she does involves sex at one end and profit at the other.

Now and then there's a spurt of dark humor in the movie. I liked John's porn fixation and the utter humiliation it led him to. Eventually, he and Nadia also find a kind of disillusioned rhythm that's attractive. But between bad hair and tonal irregularity, the movie doesn't give you much to like.

BIRTHDAY GIRL (R, 93 minutes)contains sexual situations and violence. At area theaters.

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