Every now and then a film comes along that, on paper, has everything going for it. Every now and then a film comes along with a cast that is so explosively talented and dynamic, it must surely be a winner. Every now and then a film comes along you desperately want to enjoy, but ends up being a convoluted and mind-numbingly dull mess. Step forward, The Birthday Cake.
Ewan McGregor, Val Kilmer, Paul Sorvino and William Fichtner are just some of the names attached to debut director Jimmy Giannopoulos’s gangster thriller. Impressive, right? However, if you make it to the end of this movie, you’ll spend as much time trying to figure out what attracted them to this project as you will trying to make sense of what you’ve just watched.
In downtown Brooklyn, Gio’s (Shiloh Fernandez) mobster father has been murdered. 10 years later and on his dad’s birthday, he transports the titular cake through the grimy streets of the crime-ridden New York borough to a family gathering to celebrate his life. His journey to the party is rudely interrupted by FBI agents searching for his cousin, Leo, who has recently been released from prison. They want Leo to rat on his family and they harass and threaten Gio into cooperating with them. He then meets a succession of colourful characters, each slightly more obnoxious than the next, and all hinting at the danger Gio and Leo are in. It would seem the family suspect the pair’s involvement with the Feds which threatens their safety.
The party is hosted by Gio’s uncle Angelo (Val Kilmer), one of the last remaining Mafia bosses. It’s a gangster’s paradise here as many familiar faces from TV and film assemble to create an intimidating atmosphere not seen since Come Dine with Me series 3 episode 9. Gio’s evening goes from bad to worse as he witnesses police brutality, vicious murders and betrayal. Not knowing who to trust, he has no choice but to confront the violent past he’s been ignoring if he is to survive the night.
It’s hard to know where to start with The Birthday Cake as it has few redeeming factors. Voiceover narration fails to add any drama and makes the film feel dated and cheap, whilst attempts to ease the tension with comedic moments (there’s a bizarre argument in the back of a taxi) fail to hit the mark.
Shilol Fernandez leads the film strongly, but the huge names attached have minimal impact. Indeed, Paul Sorvino only has two words and barely 20 seconds of screen time. Ewan McGregor dons his priest’s gown from Angels & Demons and is there and gone in the time it would take you to say three Hail Mary’s and The Lord’s Prayer. Val Kilmer is still a colossal presence, but his recent health issues (he’s survived throat cancer and had two tracheotomies) have unfortunately affected his voice so much that his dialogue is almost impossible to understand. He does, however, manage to act his socks off and convey a plethora of emotions just using his eyes and facial expressions.
It’s a confusing narrative too with various characters introduced quickly who add nothing to the story and simply disappear never to be seen or heard from again. Sound issues make things hard to follow. Background noise often drowns out speech and just when you think events are going to be wrapped up and you’ll get answers to the numerous questions the plot raises, the credits roll. It isn’t subtle either. An annoyingly loud and dramatic guitar chord telegraphs when something bad or violent is happening.
A wasted opportunity of gargantuan proportions, this is one birthday cake that had all the right ingredients, but somehow ended up undercooked.
The Birthday Cake will be ready for tasting from July 16th.