The Gift Rapped

In Birthday Girl, this month’s Nicole Kidman film, she plays a Russian mail-order bride, and for about half the movie she mostly nods and chain-smokes; when she eventually converses in English, her accent is as thick as that of Lotte Lenya’s Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love. Kidman isn’t exactly convincing as a mail-order anything, let alone a Russian, but as usual, she gives a hypercontrolled performance. She’s so intent on seeming genuine here that she never is.

Ben Chaplin plays John Buckingham, a withdrawn British bank clerk who sends for Nadia via the Internet; when he realizes she doesn’t speak English as advertised, he wants to fly her back to Moscow. But John is a poor soul looking for solace, and Nadia finds the way to his heart: She plays out his trussed-up S&M fantasies. We are meant to find this charming. Then her two bully-boy “cousins,” played by Vincent Cassel and Mathieu Kassovitz, arrive, and soon it’s apparent a dangerous scam is afoot. Jez Butterworth, who co-wrote and directed, has such a wobbly sense of tone that it’s impossible to tell from moment to moment whether we’re watching a screwball comedy or Straw Dogs Lite. Even more bizarre is that the film’s Russians are all played by French and Australian actors. Too bad Butterworth didn’t find a Russian to play the Brit. That would have made the inauthenticity complete.

Shot on digital video and directed and co-written by Gary Burns, the Canadian film waydowntown has some fizzy satirical moments at the expense of the yuppie corporate culture. It’s about four dronish workers who toil in a self-enclosed complex connecting office buildings, apartments, and food courts. The film begins on the twenty-fourth day of a bet to see who can stay indoors the longest. Except for the woefully underrated Office Space, no other movie has been so creepily attuned to Dilbert-itis. The atmosphere inside the complex is so stifling that the air outside, which is probably rife with urban pollution, is made to seem ineffably sweet. (One of the wagerers, played by Marya Delver, sniffs magazine perfume samples to clear her head.)

It’s never entirely clear what these junior achievers do for a living, and that’s the point: Their real lifework is all the stuff that happens between their assigned tasks, namely backbiting and fretting and obsessing. The tip-top cast includes Fabrizio Filippo, as a smart-mouthed go-getter who imagines himself a superhero flying through the airspace, and Don McKellar, as a sad sack who staples corporate slogans like submit to commitment to his chest. Waydowntown has a poignant undertone: We may feel we already know in our bones just how suffocating this culture is; but the people who made this movie seem to be discovering each fresh horror for the first time. It’s like watching a virgin sacrifice.

Scotland, PA is a smirky reworking of Macbeth in which Joe “Mac” McBeth (James Le Gros) and his wife, Pat (Maura Tierney), are a fun seventies couple who deep-fry a local fast-food king (James Rebhorn) and convert his business into a smashing success, complete with dipping sauce and drive-up windows, before getting their comeuppance at the hands of investigator Ernie McDuff, played by Christopher Walken. It’s an indication of the movie’s cluelessness that Walken is cast as the one true voice of sanity. Along the way, characters with names like “Banko” Banconi (Kevin Corrigan) and Malcolm Duncan (Thomas Guiry) put in appearances. Writer-director Billy Morrissette doesn’t have much feeling for satire – or for Shakespeare. This is a comedy for people who couldn’t make it through the CliffsNotes.

Birthday Girl
Starring Nicole Kidman and Ben Chaplin.
Starring Fabrizio Filippo and Marya Delver.
Scotland, PA
Starring James Le Gros, Maura Tierney, and Christopher Walken.

The Gift Rapped