When Al Gore invented the Internet, he surely never guessed how useful a tool it would become in helping love-starved denizens of cyberspace find their perfect mate. How could he have known that, by the year 2002, websites like match.com would be advertising during Friends, promising a perfect partner for every Tom, Dick and Mary in America. Why, even a cursory glance at the back of this very magazine reveals a plethora of hookup services with catchy names like rentboy.com, fagtag.com and even hx.com.
In Birthday Girl, the website is FromRussiaWithLove.com, and the lonely heart is John (Ben Chaplin), an unassuming bank teller with an unremarkable life made distinctive only by his predilection for S&M porn. Realizing that his chances of finding a suitable girlfriend are relatively slim given his utter mediocrity, he throws caution to the wind and, with the click of a mouse, orders himself a wife, Nadia (Nicole Kidman). Days later, he’s picking her up at the airport and – surprise! – she doesn’t exactly match her profile. For starters, she smokes. And speaks no English. But she does have a taste for pain, so, once Ben’s initial reluctance subsides, they resort to communication via the language of lust. All’s well until her two thuggish “cousins” (Vincent Cassel, from Brotherhood of the Wolf, and Amelie‘s Mathieu Kassovitz) turn up, and Ben learns that Nadia may not be exactly what she seems.
Director Jez Butterworth has ingeniously combined the playfulness of a romantic comedy with the suspense of a thriller, resulting in a taught yet mischievous spine-tingler. He’s taken some incredible risks, not the least of which is keeping his leading lady virtually mute for the first third of the film and hiring two French actors to play Russian toughs (no matter how hunky they are – and they truly are.) But the gamble paid off; Birthday Girl teases and taunts while ensnaring the audience in a so-simple-it’s-brilliant story of intrigue, deception, and – oh yeah – love.
Once again, Kidman expands her ever-growing repertoire even further in another risky role. She may have lost Tom to Penelope, but it looks she’ll be having the last laugh: after snagging a Golden Globe for her performance in Moulin Rouge, she’s setting herself up for more accolades next year with her mesmerizing turn here. Meanwhile, Cruise and Cruz’s Vanilla Sky has already rocketed into obscurity. Yup, Instant Karma sure is a bitch. Just remember that next time you’re describing yourself on thenumber.com.