Indie films, above all others, are ones that I root for to succeed. But sometimes you have to call a spade a spade. "The Birthday Cake" is one of the oddest little films you'll come across, and not in a good way. It contains a mix of what seems like flavorful ingredients that when blended together, leaves a terrible taste in your mouth.
This is one course worth passing on altogether.
It's the feature-film debut for Jimmy Giannopoulos, and when you look at the names of the actors he was able to assemble in "The Birthday Cake," you feel like there must have been something good going on at the project's inception. How else could he have gotten Ewan McGregor, Lorraine Bracco, Aldis Hodge, John Magaro, Luis Guzman, William Fichtner and even Val Kilmer to appear in his first feature film?
Strangely and egregiously, all of these "big name" actors appear only fleetingly in this subdued mob drama. The story centers on a young Italian man, Gio (Shiloh Fernandez, who also co-wrote the script), whose mobster father dies while he's still an impressionable teenager. It's now 10 years later, and Gio's mom (Lorraine Bracco) makes a cake for Gio to bring to a celebration where all of the mobsters will be assembled, including the head of the family, his Uncle Angelo (Val Kilmer). Along the way he runs into a number of bad people and situations that reveal more aspects of this overly convoluted story.
It is more than distracting to see some of these bigger names breeze in and breeze out of the movie. Ewan McGregor provides some "noir-like" narration and has one brief scene at the beginning of the film. Bracco throws her one scene in shortly thereafter. You'll notice on-the-rise actor Aldis Hodge, but then he's gone too. Luis Guzman plays a cabbie that...you guessed it...has but one scene. And then don't even get me started on the eventual dinner scene, where Paul Sorvino is shoved into the mix for no apparent reason, and where we get to see Val Kilmer like many have never seen him before.
Val Kilmer. Some may know that the prolific actor, who was an absolute A-List actor back in the 80s and 90s (you don't get cast as Batman for being a nobody), has battled throat cancer off-screen in recent years. The result of his battle and two tracheotomies has left him with what The Hollywood Reporter says "has reduced his voice to a rasp and rendered him short of breath." He also uses a feeding tube as he can no longer eat. It's miraculous that he is alive let alone still acting. But his appearance in "The Birthday Cake" feels exploitative and out-of-place. Surely if you knew none of this, his condition in the film (with subtitles provided for the sparse dialogue he's given) comes as a shock so large that it knocks you out of the movie.
Which may be a good thing, come to think of it. In addition to the parade of well-known actors, "The Birthday Cake" feels like a student film final project, with dizzying, annoying cinematography and a real lack of cohesiveness or personality. Everybody, including Fernandez in the lead role, seems out of place. It's almost miraculous that things go as bad as they do, and not for the characters, but for the audience.
Watching "The Birthday Cake," I couldn't help but think that a documentary on the making of "The Birthday Cake" would be an exponentially better film experience. What were they thinking? What was the point of it all? How did he get all of these actors to appear in his film? Was he calling in favors? Is he related somehow? Those questions are all deeply more profound than any of those raised in the actual film.
It's great to see Val Kilmer back on-screen, but not like this.
Genre: Crime, Thriller.
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes.
Starring: Shiloh Fernandez, William Fichtner, Lorraine Bracco, Ewan McGregor, Val Kilmer, Aldis Hodge, John Magaro, Emory Cohen, Ashley Benson, Marla Maples, Paul Sorvino, Vincent Pastore.
Directed by Jimmy Giannopoulos (feature-film debut).
"The Birthday Cake" is available on Friday, June 18th, 2021.
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