The Unexpected Rom-Com 

Or, Why I Like Nicole So Much Better Since the Divorce

Birthday Girl
dir. Butterworth
Opens Fri Feb 1
Various Theaters

As anyone who has seen The Wedding Planner or America's Sweethearts can attest, the rom-com (or romantic comedy) adheres to certain rules: 1) Nebbish is unable to find love. 2) Nebbish meets Mr. or Ms. Right. 3) Problems of supposed monumental proportions keep the two apart. 4) Despite help from wacky friends and family, the nebbish wins the boy/girl of his/her dreams. And, 5) The End.

Now, these rules are all fine and dandy as long as the audience remembers to shut down all brain activity and go along for the ride. But what happens when you encounter the "rogue" rom-com? That different breed that's more like Something Wild than Pretty Woman? In this case, Jez Butterworth's new feature, Birthday Girl, is definitely more Wild than Pretty.

Nicole Kidman stars as Nadia, a Russian mail-order bride commissioned by Limey nebbish banker, John (played by nebbishy Antonio Banderas look-alike, Ben Chaplin). Problems ensue, however, when John discovers Nadia doesn't speak a lick of English. But, just when he's about to ship her back to the motherland, a well-timed handjob convinces him otherwise. Slowly, thanks to Nadia's proclivity for the sexual arts, John becomes infatuated, and all is well--that is, until two of her Russian pals show up unannounced. Turns out they have not-so-nice plans to hold Nadia for ransom, forcing John to steal money from his own bank. The question then presents itself: What is John willing to do for love?

Though this scenario appears to stick to basic rom-com rules, there are more surprises in this flick than a crate of Cracker Jacks. Plus, can you name another rom-com in which the main character vomits and gives a handjob in the first ten minutes? It's also important to note that Nicole Kidman is so much better since her divorce! She plays Nadia with a punkish, beaten-by-the-world sensuality that's right on the money. And while I'm only giving this film a solid, rather than enthusiastic, recommendation, it's primarily because of the emotional distance between actors and audience that stunts the payoff. Regardless, if you're in the mood for a thinking-person's rom-com, Birthday Girl provides a rarely seen view of romance: down and definitely dirty.

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