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By Tim Merrill | February 1, 2002

Any movie that begins with a close-up of a nebbishy young man speaking directly into the camera has a lot to prove. But Jez Butterworth’s “Birthday Girl” pulls off a quick save when it’s revealed that said nebbish – bank teller John Buckingham, played by Ben Chaplin – is actually addressing his webcam, for the purpose of ordering a Russian bride online (are they called e-brides nowadays?) Before the credits have ended, John is at Heathrow to pick up Nadia, who materializes in the foxy form of soon-to-be-Oscar nominated Nicole Kidman. Life ought be grand, no?
Not when John discovers that no matter what question he asks, the only answer Nadia can give is “Yees.” The language barrier is a nasty surprise, and much furtive awkwardness ensues. But one night Nadia favors John with an efficient, and effective, handjob. He buys her an English-Russian dictionary as a gift – and she comes back with a video called “Hog-Tied B*****s,” then throws him on the bed and jumps right on top. Nadia is quite the kinky wildcat, fluent in the Universal Language, and suddenly she is John’s dream girl after all. There’s rich comedy in a “love montage” that intercuts shots of Nadia knitting a comfy sweater for John with shots of her tying him up, finding more intimate uses for her needles.
All is well, then, until two more Russians show up at John’s door, Nadia’s “cousin” Yuri (director and “Amélie” leading man Mathieu Kassovitz) and Yuri’s rambunctious buddy Alexei (Vincent Cassel, who Kassovitz directed in “Hate”). Butterworth’s script has, up to this point, led us down a garden path of romance, but we know the instant Yuri and Alexei show up they’re bad news. (That they’re both played by Frenchmen has nothing to do with it; that they listen to Russian rap definitely does.) Soon enough the pair prove just how bad they are, and Nadia is revealed as…perhaps something less than a dream girl.
Luckily, “Birthday Girl” has so well established itself as a smart, brightly-hued romantic comedy that the jarring shift in tone is forgivable. For a while. But the humor soon drains so completely from the movie that’s it’s difficult to stay involved through the predictable conclusion. What had been a charmingly buoyant little waltz between the agreeable Chaplin and the spectacular Kidman just deflates, slackening into suspense-thriller clichés. Nevertheless, “Birthday Girl” stubbornly sticks to being the…well, the sort of movie it has decided to turn into. It still manages to slide by, but barely, and only on the strength of its two leads.
Doubting any move Nicole Kidman makes would be unwise these days. It’s just a shame that “Birthday Girl” starts out as a first-rate chick movie and winds up a second-rate guy movie. But if this somehow proves to be a formula for the perfect date movie, then Kidman is even more brilliant than we thought.

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