Jimmy Giannopoulos’s feature-length debut, the mob drama The Birthday Cake, has heart to spare. It functions on multiple levels: as a taut thriller, a tale of salvation, a neon-tinged ode to mob movies of yore, ones that so clearly inspired the talented newcomer, a thinly-veiled statement about race in America, and as a lyrical ode to Brooklyn, home to some of the most ruthless mobsters in history. It may not be a perfect confection, but this cake’s got layers.
After his father was “found strangled to death in the back of a Cadillac,” young Gio confides in Father Kelly (Ewan McGregor) at his local church. Living in the shadow of his powerful mob boss Uncle Angelo (Val Kilmer), the kid struggles to survive on the streets; he’s got a black eye to prove it. His instigating cousin Leo (Emory Cohen) makes Gio confront the bullies that beat him up, but that doesn’t end well.
“Gio is saddled with the task of bringing a cake home to Uncle Angelo…”
Ten years later, Gio’s matured into a dashing young lad (Shiloh Fernandez), living with his mom Sofia (Lorraine Bracco). She warns him of “the drugs and the money” out there in the streets, ominously forewarning, “This isn’t gonna end well.” Gio is saddled with the task of bringing a cake home to Uncle Angelo to celebrate the tenth anniversary of his father’s death. But Leo is in deep trouble, and folks like the menacing Eagle (Aldis Hodge) are after him, threatening Gio along his journey.
Despite its frequent allusions to the Scorsese classics, The Birthday Cake perhaps most resembles the master’s After Hours in its single-night, somewhat-crazed journey through NYC streets. Gio encounters a variety of individuals, including baker Tommy (Jeremy Allen White), his girlfriend Tracey (Ashley Benson), and a pot-smoking cab driver, Jochee (Luis Guzmán). When he finally arrives at the party, he’s greeted by the cream of the mafia’s crop. They are as inviting as they are menacing – particularly corrupt cop Uncle Ricardo (William Fichtner), who corners Gio about Leo. I won’t spoil the violent ending, but it ratchets things up a notch.
"…may not be a perfect confection, but this cake’s got layers."