Kidman delivers the goods as a Russian mail-order bride in "Birthday Girl," but she's the only gift for the audience. 

Return To Sender

Made more than three years ago and released now strictly to take advantage of Nicole Kidman's post-"Moulin Rouge" and "The Others" success, "Birthday Girl" is nothing to celebrate. A slight but quirky comedy that turns dark quite suddenly, it certainly is not the date movie it's being marketed as. The movie's tagline says it all: "Someone's going to get a big surprise." That someone is anyone who buys a ticket.

Kidman, who's great fun to watch despite sporting the worst hair on-screen since Meg Ryan in "Kate & Leopold," plays Nadia, a Russian mail-order bride with a dark past. When she's on-camera, the movie comes close to rocking. Unfortunately, the movie, script and director would rather focus on Ben Chaplin, who plays John, a dorky, shy and neurotic bank employee who decides to buy true love over the Internet. Not that Chaplin doesn't use his sad, dark eyes to great effect, crafting a sad-sack character that's easy to relate to. Both appealing, Kidman and Chaplin come close to overcoming the story's numerous slow spots, but not quite.

For a self-proclaimed, fast-moving thriller with a running time of only 93 minutes, "Birthday Girl" is shockingly sluggish.

Turns out, you see, that Nadia — a pale, chain-smoking waif with permanent black mascara smudges under her eyes — isn't exactly as she seems, or even as she's represented herself to poor John. First, she doesn't speak English, and when she throws up on the way to John's apartment, even he begins to realize something's just not right. Exasperated, he tries to send her back, but when Nadia displays an enthusiasm for playing out his sadomasochistic fantasies as well as a fair amount of pale skin, a quasi-romance develops.

Later, when Nadia's two Russian "cousins" show up to celebrate her birthday, John discovers just how much trouble he's gotten himself into. Before he can say "Nyet!" he's entangled in a web of deceit, crime and corruption that screenwriters seem to take great delight in. But director Jez Butterworth, who co-wrote the script with his brother Tom, makes things too generic. Nadia's motives are never entirely clear; John's choices often seem puzzling and out of character for this sad sack we've come to know; and those Russian cousins, Alexi and Yuri, provide little more than comic — albeit edgy — relief.

Ultimately, "Birthday Girl" disintegrates into a fairly routine — and somewhat brutal — crime caper. Though the violence has been softened some since its premiere last fall at the Toronto Film Festival, female audience members still may be put off by such scenes as the one where Nadia is threatened with a kettle of boiling water.

From start to end, the movie's sole gift remains Kidman. She has a field day playing the raccoon-eyed opportunist, displaying a knack for lusty physical comedy that would later blossom in "Moulin Rouge." In addition to Kidman's knockout performance and Chaplin's more understated turn as John, two very cool Frenchmen play those underutilized Russian "cousins" — Mathieu Kassovitz, acclaimed director of "Hate ("La Haine") and currently a romantic-comedy star in "Amelie," and Vincent Cassel, who's starred in several Kassovitz films and can be seen in the hip-hybrid "Brotherhood of the Wolf."

Early in "Birthday Girl," John makes a videotape to show his prospective brides, in which he lists, among things he likes, "Films — if they're good." Somehow, I'm thinking "Birthday Girl" wouldn't be on his


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