"Birth" should have been good. It had all the elements: Spooky scenario, seamless direction, stellar cast. We were ready for it to be good; we wanted it to be good. We're really into that whole high-concept reincarnation flick thing. But someone's got to say it, and so we will: For all its art-house posturing, for all its exploration of the taboo topic, "Birth" is anything but good.
To be sure, "Birth," directed by Jonathan Glazer ("Sexy Beast"), is beautiful to look at, dreamy in tone, sparsely elegant. It's got a great cast: Nicole Kidman, Lauren Bacall, Danny Huston ("Silver City"). It's got controversy: It was booed at the Venice Film Festival. And it's got an intriguing premise: Does love, true love, survive death?
But what "Birth" doesn't have is a story that makes any sense. Mystery is fine. We like mystery. Muddle is another thing altogether, and jerking around the audience in the name of "art" is pretty unforgivable.
The film starts with promise: A man can be heard, in voice-over, musing about the possibility of reincarnation. He doesn't buy it. Shortly afterwards we see him jogging down a snowy path in Central Park. It's no great surprise when he collapses in a heap, dead. Minutes later -- in one of those trendy "water births" -- a young boy is born.
Leapfrog 10 years, and the man's upper-crust widow, Anna (Kidman, sporting a Mia Farrow 'do and looking as though she's badly in need of hair and a hamburger) is still gobsmacked with grief, never mind that she's about to marry another man, the vulpine Joseph (Huston, the son of the late, great director John Huston). An enigmatic young boy (Cameron Bright) shows up at a birthday party, insisting that he is her long-dead husband. Don't marry Joseph, he tells her. You're my wife.
Eventually, in a truly shuddersome scene, the two end up naked in a bathtub together. (This would be the scene that sparked the Venice boos.) Anna pretty much loses her mind, and along with it, any credibility with the audience.
It has been said that it's extremely difficult, while on set, to ascertain if one is making a good movie or a bad movie. Fair enough. And yet . . . the filmmakers have got to know that a scene with Kidman murmuring to a 10-year-old, "We'll run away. And 11 years from now, when you're 21, we'll get married . . ." will only induce guffaws from its audience. Which it did.
Birth (100 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for nudity, a sex scene and rather disturbing intimacy between a grown woman and young boy.