Well, I'll be damned. I've found an instance in which Skinamax films' constant use of sex scenes actually gives them an ADVANTAGE over mainstream films.
The film "Birthday Girl" is that instance. It's the story of John (played by Ben Chaplin), a mild-mannered English bank clerk who, giving up on a finding a local girl to be his true love, orders a Russian mail order bride over the Internet.
What he gets is Nadia, played by Nicole Kidman, and he's pretty pissed off, which is the first sign that this movie is wrongheaded. I mean, if I were to order mail order bride over the Internet, and she turned out to look like Nicole Kidman, I'd figure I'd hit the jackpot! (Though I'm pretty sure my wife wouldn't like her, no matter what she looked like, but ESPECIALLY if she looked like Nicole Kidman. Women are so irrational!)
John is pissed, however, because Nadia is a smoker and is not an English speaker, and he ordered a non-smoking English speaker, so he calls the agency that sent Nadia over and asks for a refund or something.
Meanwhile Nadia finds John's stash of porn mags -- to be specific, they're bondage porn mags, with names like "Hogtied Bitches." Nadia is very interested. She studies them like an archaeologist poring over ancient cuneiforms. Shortly thereafter, she confronts John with the bondage mags, plonking them down on the dinner table. Mild-mannered John runs away, fearful of the horrible consequences that must surely await his new bride's discovery of his dark secret.
The horrible consequences show up shortly, as Nadia sits on the bed and wraps her wrists in one of his ties, a clear invitation to a little bondage play. John accepts, though the door closes behind him as he approaches his bound bride.
Shortly thereafter we see a seen of Nadia writhing naked as John ties her wrists to the head of the bed. The scene is WAAAY too tastefully done for my tastes, shooting from behind the headboard so that about all we see of Kidman's nakedity is her hips and the top half of her butt. How's about a little celebrity package display here? Tie her legs spreadeagle and shoot from the back -- I'll bet Kidman's package is as pretty as the rest of her.
The film then enters a brief romantic idyll in which John and Nadia become a very happy couple indeed, walking in romantic parks and having great fun together.
The idyll is soon interrupted when two of Nadia's "relatives" make a suprise visit her for her birthday. These "relatives" turn out to be Russian gangsters, and in short order we're in a mess of hitting, screaming, shooting, chasing, etc.
Yes, we are talking about the bane of Skinamax films, Lurking Heavy Plot. Lurking Heavy Plot, as you may recall from our review of Testing the Limits is a plot format wherein a pleasant little story of romance, sex and sex is interrupted at the end by a crazed kidnapper ("Limits") blackmail ring ("Erotic Boundaries") criminal mastermind taking an objection to his plots being ruined ("I Like To Play Games, Too") or other generic staple of crime melodramas. It's a commonplace in Skinamax films, where they often justifiably lack confidence in the characters to keep viewers interested (though strangely enough, they also seem to lack confidence in the sex) so they interject a heavy plotline that just crushes the sex and relationship-building like a bowling ball hurled through a plate-glass window.
But in Skinamax films the Lurking Heavy Plot doesn't really screw up the movies badly, since they keep the plot lurking until the very end, where they drag it in to resolve the storylines instead of having to, like, have the characters develop or something. Because of all the sex, they have to keep the plot light, and when you've got a Lurking Heavy Plot to deal with, that's an advantage.
But the Lurking Heavy Plot in "Birthday Girl" kicks in with about 2/3 of the movie to go, and takes over completely. It completely fucks the movie over, transforming an intriguing story of two interesting characters in a very unusual situation into your standard copsnrobbers hit and scream and chase movie.
What a waste. We had a great story there: what would it be like to be a Russian mail-order bride who is desperate enough to marry a total stranger to get out of the hell of life in the former Soviet Union, who then finds out her husband is handsome and (by Soviet standards) well off but is into bondage. What do you do?
What kind of guy orders mail order brides from Russia anyway? Chaplin's character starts out kind of interesting, as he justifies his decision to go the mail-order matrimony route on a demographic basis, i.e., what's the chances of really meeting the love of your life at the corner grocer when you live in a small town and you work long hours?
(Actually, this is a bit of a cheat. If the guy was computerly-sophisticated enough to use the Net to order a Russian bride, surely he could have used the Net to court and meet a woman from somewhere closer -- say, England. The thing I was thinking was that a guy who was into bondage who also orders mail-order brides might just be looking for a perpetual power imbalance situation between his bride and himself. But this theme is never hinted at, much less developed.)
Neither Chaplin nor Kidman does much to make their characters live. Kidman's character is always opaque -- you never really know whether what she seems to be thinking and feeling is real or she's acting for Chaplin's benefit. Most especially, we never get any idea how she feels about being the bondagee in a bondage relationship. It would have helped, a lot, and not just for us bondage fans.
Then again, after the initial burst of character where he explains why he's getting a bride by mail order, Chaplin retreats entirely into being a standard shy bank clerk who slowly does the old turning-worm act. The interesting parts of his personality are left hanging.
So, we've got this fascinating storyline about two characters trying to build a relationship under unusual circumstances, and it's just destroyed by Lurking Heavy Plot that takes up two thirds of the movie. Worse yet, the Lurking Heavy Plot is a standard-issue melange of gangster melodrama.
Sometimes interjecting a Lurking Heavy Plot into a romantic storyline creates a sort of crucible that makes the characters and their relationships stronger and more intense. Film noir classics like "Body Heat" and "Niagara" have that effect. But most of the time, what actually happens is that the characters get crushed beneath the weight of the plot. They have to run, scream at people, hit and be hit by people and generally carry on like a bunch of wild animals.\
To put it simply, despite some tasty DiD scenes for Kidman, everything that happens after her gangster boyfriends appear is a total loss. It just makes you wonder -- did anybody who made this movie read the script with any degree of comprehension at all?
If "Birthday Girl" had followed Skinamax films' approach to it's Lurking Heavy Plot and made it a brief way to end the movie, it would have had much more time to develop the characters, and been a much better movie for it. At least we can at console ourselves with the thought that in this movie a bondage fan is portrayed as a regular guy who just has this little kink, and who has what it takes to turn into a hero eventually.
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