A boring bank clerk from an English bedroom berg gets a lot more than he bargained for when he sends away for a Russian email-order bride in the semi-comical, semi-romantic thriller "Birthday Girl."
What nebbish, nervous John (Ben Chaplin) finds waiting for him at the airport is a coy, raccoon-eyed beauty named Nadia (Nicole Kidman) who -- contrary to claims on FromRussiaWithLove.com -- doesn't speak a lick of English. He takes her home anyway, but leaves several agitated messages with the matchmaking agency that go unanswered. Then in the ensuing few weeks, the girl grows on him -- and not just because she turns out to be a seductive, enthusiastic sexpot in the sack.
Using the translation dictionary he bought her as a sign of his newfound contentment, Nadia tells John it's her birthday, but fails to mention she's invited two traveling Russian friends to visit.
Although they're outwardly warm and jovial, Yuri (Mathieu Kassovitz) and Alexei (Vincent Cassel) smell like trouble from the minute they walk in the door -- and it isn't long before they turn downright dangerous. John soon finds himself a wanted man on the run from the police -- and on an adrenaline-fueled, newly emboldened hunt to find the Russians, who left him tied up in a hotel room after forcing him to rob his own bank.
Director Jez Butterworth (who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Tom) does a dexterous balancing act with the movie's mix of romance, excitement and humor -- especially after John discovers the double-crossing Nadia also tied up and abandoned by her partners in crime.
Torn between feeling sorry for her (he's still a little bit in love) and wanting to march her down to a police station, John drags Nadia along on what becomes a tables-turned game of cat and mouse that Yuri and Alexei don't know they're playing.
"Birthday Girl" doesn't become the fast-paced action-and-intrigue movie implied in its TV ads (that's just a marketing ploy to coerce the lowest common denominator into the multiplexes). Instead it's a modest and acerbically clever escapade that relies more on wit than excitement. After revealing she's known English all along, Nadia begins an adversarial flirtation that keeps John on his toes. They genuinely like each other, but will he forgive her? And can she be trusted?
"You can't hurt me more than I'm hurt already," Nadia says after being dumped by Yuri and Alexei -- who was her boyfriend and talked her into being sex bait for lonely guys in the first place.
"Nadia, if it's all the same to you, I'd like to give it a bash," John cracks back.
As the balance tips back and forth between bad guys and good guys (the Russians intercept Nadia after John tries to put her on a plane), John starts to consider options other than setting the record straight and going back to his dull daily grind.
The picture's light, dry and droll undertone helps it overcome a few glaringly unlikely goings on -- not the least of which is that the Butterworths' script doesn't give John enough motivation for ignoring his many opportunities to get out of his predicament. Why hasn't he called the police before Nadia gets the best of his sympathies with her newfound mea culpa disposition?
But "Birthday Girl" has a certain mischievous zest that helps smooth over its story shortcomings, and the actors pepper their performances with just the right amount of abstract irony to keep you from taking the film too seriously. Chaplin ("Lost Souls," The Truth About Cats and Dogs") stifles his inherent charm and good looks to espouse John's apprehensive nature (and later, his carpe diem gallantry). Kidman is sexy and sly as the deceitful but ultimately regretful Nadia, giving her more complexity than any character like this has on paper. French actors Kassovitz ("Amélie") and Cassel ("Brotherhood of the Wolf") lend a charismatic, coiled rattlesnake menace to Yuri and Alexei (curiously, there are no actual Russians in this movie), who have built a good cop-bad cop repartee into their practiced criminal scheme.
But a special tip of the hat must go to costume designer Phoebe de Gaye, who contributes immeasurably to these characters' identities by embracing the film's idiosyncratic sense of humor. John's starchy short sleeve shirts and awkwardly snug ties have an ingenuously dorky quality, Nadia's sweet tart wardrobe is exactly the kind of garb popular in behind-the-times Eastern Europe, and the Russians' flashy open-shirt, leather-pants ensembles give them the unmistakable look of second-rate gangster wannabes. Between what these outfits have to say and the body language they inspire, "Birthday Girl" could almost go without dialogue and remain the same flawed but appealing guilty pleasure.