CAST: Shiloh Fernandez, Val Kilmer, Ewan McGregor, David Mazouz, Lorraine Bracco, Ashley Benson, John Magaro, Vincent Pastore, Nick Vallelonga, Emily Tremaine, William Fichtner, Penn Badgley, Aldis Hodge, Luis Guzmán, Emory Cohen, Paul Sorvino
RUNNING TIME: 93 mins
BASICALLY…: As he undertakes a family tradition over the course of one night, a young man’s (Fernandez) life is forever altered…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Of the many cake analogies one could use to describe Jimmy Giannopoulos’ debut directorial feature The Birthday Cake, the one I’m going with harkens back to an eye-catching headline from earlier this year.
Back in April, M&S accused Aldi of plagiarising their popular sponge roll product known as Colin the Caterpillar Cake, with its own extraordinarily similar concoction known as Cuthbert. I like to think that Giannopoulos’ film is to nearly every famous gangster movie ever what Cuthbert is to Colin: a drier, less flavoursome, and more noticeably underdeveloped mess that leaves you pining for the taste of the real thing, instead of continuing with this blatant knock-off that you’re really not that interested in, no matter how many unusual ingredients it tries grabbing your attention with.
The film centres on Gio (Shiloh Fernandez, who also co-wrote the film), a young mobster whose father died ten years prior. On the tenth anniversary of his father’s death, Gio is tasked by his mother (Lorraine Bracco, one of the many names in this movie that show up just so you can shout, “What the hell are they doing in this movie?!”) to deliver a cake to his Uncle Angelo (played by another one of those names, Val Kilmer – more on him shortly).
So little happens in this movie that everything in that above paragraph is basically an entire rundown of the main plot. Everything else feels like excessive filler, whether it’s random character moments or the occasional violent outburst, designed solely to stretch this movie to feature-length. Normally, films that have very thin plots can work just fine if it has enough of a fine mix of other elements to carry itself, whether it’s characters or dialogue or a certain directorial style; The Birthday Cake, on the other hand, really doesn’t have any of those things. Not a single character in this movie has an interesting enough personality to hook you into the drama, so very quickly your patience is worn thin because there’s no reason given for you to care about anyone or anything. The dialogue is awkwardly written and far too sunken into its plethora of gangster movie clichés; before we even finish the production company logos, we’ve already heard someone say “fahgettaboudit” in plain view. Giannopoulos’ direction also underwhelms, because although it occasionally aims for Pulp Fiction-style visuals while also trying to emulate the pressure-cooker naturalism of something like Uncut Gems, it ultimately fails on both accounts due to its own lack of identity outside of simply borrowing from other, much better movies of the gangster genre.
It’s one of those movies where things will just happen without rhyme or reason, and characters who seem important will show up for a scene only to almost completely disappear from existence. Aldis Hodge shows up early as an FBI agent that’s targeting Shiloh Fernandez’ character, which you think will eventually lead to something but it never, ever does. Luis Guzmán is also in one scene of the movie as a taxi driver, and as soon as it introduces an element that might see him play a much larger role, it’s instantly resolved and, again, he completely drops out of the movie. Strangest of all, though, is Ewan McGregor who bookends the movie as a friendly priest, and a few times throughout provides pointless expository narration designed to fill in gaps that we, the audience, never get to see (I am willing to bet that McGregor’s narration was a late, studio-mandated addition, not dissimilar to the infamous Harrison Ford narration added to the theatrical release of Blade Runner). All of these characters coming in and out of the movie make it feel so much more unfocused, because aside from Fernandez’ lead character you’re never quite sure who you’re exactly meant to be following, which in turn makes you care even less about so many of these people.
In fairness, the script doesn’t give many of the more prominent figures in this movie much to work with either, despite some of their clear efforts. Often, in the case of Shiloh Fernandez or William Fichtner (who pops up as a corrupt cop), you’ll have some performances that are technically fine, but the material they’ve been given is so weak that they’ve resorted to emulating past iconic roles or laying on thick the smarm in order to pass as something memorable. But then, you have Val Kilmer. The actor has had a rough few years, having fought throat cancer which has severely damaged his voice box, yet he is still performing which is in many ways admirable (and soon to be documented in the upcoming non-fiction feature Val); here, though, it’s obvious that the script had to be worked around his condition, with his character’s inability to speak explained (again, partly by Ewan McGregor’s gap-filling voiceover) as the result of being shot at. That’s one thing, but to actually see Kilmer acting on-screen in the condition that he’s in, his rasping making his dialogue virtually unintelligible and his body language a lot more reserved, as though he was trying not to move about too much to protect his off-screen breathing equipment, it’s very upsetting and even feels a little exploitative, especially for the kind of role he’s opted to play here. It’s by no means the actor’s fault, and more that of the filmmakers who still thought it was a good idea to have him play this major character in the condition he was in; at least in The Snowman, he was given the courtesy of being (horrendously) dubbed Steven Seagal style, whereas they let his rasping sadly dominate his performance here.
The movie doesn’t even have an ending, finishing right when things seem like they’re about to get interesting, and when certain revelations are finally about to be revealed. However, at the rate that The Birthday Cake was already going, it’s not like our interest would have been piqued anyway; it still would have been an uninteresting, underdeveloped mess, but at least it would have had a creamy finish.
SO, TO SUM UP…
The Birthday Cake is a woefully underdeveloped gangster movie with little in terms of plot or conflict, containing many uninteresting characters played by actors that are too good for this material, and lacking its own distinctive personality.