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Surprise Party 

by Ed Symkus


There's a little piece of business going around that might act as a hint about what to expect from this film. It was originally scheduled for release in September 2000. Then it got moved to February 2001, then to sometime last fall. And now here it is, all dusted off from being on the shelf. It features good acting, even from Ben Chaplin as a lonely Brit who subscribes to an Internet service called "From Russia With Love" for a mail order bride. Nicole Kidman plays the bride, and two French actors, Vincent Cassel and Mathieu Kassovitz, are Russians who follow her, checking out her new life.


Other strong points include... errr, sorry, that's about as far as it goes, at least after the first half-hour. The film starts out with an intriguing premise. Just after John (Chaplin) goes to pick up Nadia (Kidman) at the airport and meet for the first time, he finds out that she knows not one word of English. It's soon revealed that's the exact same number of words he knows in Russian. What results later at his home, in fine comic manner, is his initial rejection of her, quickly followed by a display of her voracious sexual appetite, which gets him to change his mind fairly quickly.


Things are light and breezy and fun, and it looks like these two will be just fine together. She has secretly gone through his lonely man's collection of smut magazines and somehow managed to buy him some new ones; he's purchased a thick Russian-English dictionary to assist in communications.


But with a knock on the door, things stop being light and, alas, the movie heads off on a twisting track that shifts into half-baked thriller territory.


Behind the knock at John's place are Yuri (Cassel) and Alexei (Kassovitz), just off the plane from Moscow, the former being "a cousin who's not a cousin to Nadia" and speaks Russian and English; the latter, a mystery man who only speaks Russian. There is trouble; no one -- except sweet, kind, hard-working, under-appreciated John -- turns out to be exactly who they're made out to be. And the film begins to have some major difficulty figuring out what it, too, is supposed to be.


The blame, as blame usually must be in films, is placed squarely on the writer. In this case he happens also to be the director, Jez Butterworth, who scripted along with his brother Tom. (Another brother, Steve, served as one of the producers.) These Butterworths certainly had a good original idea, but when it came time for the plot and the mood to change, it seems that they couldn't figure out a good way to keep the motives of their characters believable.


John is wronged in a big way -- so far as to have his whole life severely altered, with police after him and all that. But his reaction to it all -- initially furious, which is the way it should be -- takes a turn toward the absurd when he finds out that one of the people responsible for getting him in hot water is also in the midst of a crisis. So good boy John goes all soft and understanding, eventually forgetting that his lonely and ordered life was a hell of a lot better than the uncertain future he now faces.


From then on, every new plot development -- and they are legion -- is marked by the fact that most people watching it are going to be thinking -- to themselves, or maybe out loud -- "Hey pal, what is wrong with you? Start sticking up for yourself!" That impulse can sometimes work in a positive manner, as when something emotional onscreen really riles up the viewer. But it's going to be said here in a disparaging way. People are going to stop rooting for this fool of a nice guy.


One other thing. There can't be enough praise for Kidman, who shows some remarkable chops for being able to get her Russian down pat. She speaks it quickly and in long bursts, and carries on some very credible conversations. But, while the same goes for Cassel and Kassovitz, one has to wonder why the filmmakers chose French actors instead of Russian ones. Both guys are good in their parts -- and Kassovitz is at times quite chilling -- but neither of them are stars or even known by the American filmgoing public.


All in all, Birthday Girl begins with promise, but like a hastily constructed cake, it all falls into disarray and ends up an unsatisfying mess.

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