Genre films rarely sidestep rank cynicism and flimsy irony these days, but Jez Butterworth’s romantic comedy-cum-caper flick Birthday Girl manages to do just that. It may not be particularly innovative, but the film’s crisp, unaffected style and air of gentle longing make it unexpectedly rewarding. Ben Chaplin plays John Buckingham, a lonely, nerdy bank clerk in a nondescript London ‘burb who gets more than he bargains for in a Russian mail-order bride, Nadia. (She’s played by Nicole Kidman, so there’s never any doubt.) Two of Nadia’s homies (Mathieu Kassovitz and Vincent Cassel in fine La Haine form) turn up to coerce their unwitting host into robbing his employer. The quartet then goes on the lam in Hertfordshire—a cinematic first?—and a series of double and triple crosses ultimately forces John and Nadia to come to terms with their self-deluding arrangement.
An unusually strong cast helps keep Birthday Girl from devolving into a tepid Limey riff on Green Card. Kassovitz and the hair-trigger Cassel speak passable Russian, Chaplin—an appealing actor whose talents have been sorely misapplied in Hollywood films—is convincingly hangdog, and Kidman finds the right balance between perkiness and icy self-interest; the actress’s customary chilly reserve seems especially appropriate here. But it’s Butterworth’s perceptive screenplay (co-written with his brother Tom) and attentive direction that give the film its wistful charm. Despite the story’s contrivances, there’s room for the characters to register as multi-dimensional beings; moreover, the director refuses to let us off the hook by passing judgment on even the most irresponsible of them. When the lovers strike a tentative truce, you’re reminded of how few movies acknowledge the acrimony that goes hand in hand with intimacy, much less find the humor in it.
The mirth in Dewey Nicks’s Slackers is of the tortured variety, and we can only hope it isn’t the project that Rushmore‘s Jason Schwartzman chose over Donnie Darko. Slackers takes place at fictional Holden University, where law student Dave (Devon Sawa) and his underachieving buddies scam their way through classes with the sort of psychotic diffidence that could pass for rakishness only in Hollywood. The campus head case is Ethan (the newly beefy Schwartzman), a desperate schlemiel who catches Dave cheating on a physics exam and blackmails him for a date with Angela (James King), his stalkee of choice. Dave falls for Angela as Ethan tries to further his cause by haunting her various volunteer jobs—in one mind-bendingly detailed scene, he services a hospitalized geriatric hooker (Mamie Van Doren). Cameron Diaz drops by to submit to similar humiliations, but things are seemingly tidied up when Dave is rehabilitated by love.
Nicks, best known for a series of Ameritrade commercials, captures it all in giddy quick cuts, and David H. Steinberg’s screenplay contains one or two laughs that don’t rely on the cruel exploitation of the old, infirm, minorities, or women. But the most that can be said for Slackers—aside from the unqualified pleasure of Schwartzman’s unfaked, puppyish weirdness—is that it doesn’t abandon its putrid ideals for the sake of a neat finish: A coda reinstates moral-moron status to Dave and the fellas. Nicks and Steinberg match their own creations for pure venality—that’s giving it the old college try.