The Birthday Cake arrives in cinemas and on digital from July 16th through Signature Entertainment.
Have you ever walked past a small artisan cake shop where all their products line the window, the soft, bouncy cakes, glistening chocolate, and thick double cream calling to you like a sugar angel from on high? Before long, the allure becomes too much, and you find yourself walking through the door, card in hand for a delicious purchase. As you order, you are full of optimism and excitement, and as you leave, your treat in hand, you look forward to savouring its delights. But, when you arrive home and unwrap your tasty treat, you realise it no longer seems as lovely as it did in the shop, and as you bite into it, the cake that looked so delicious is a tasteless disappointment. Like that alluring cake in the window, Director Jimmy Giannopoulos’ The Birthday Cake looked promising but failed to rise in the oven.
With a star-studded cast, The Birthday Cake is full of potential and does manage brief moments of brilliance. However, these fleeting moments are ultimately lost in a buffet of problems. The Birthday Cake’s most significant issues stem from a lack of space and time in shaping the back story that makes this film work. Here, the narrative too often feels rushed, leaving unforgivable gaping holes, so much so that one wonders whether another hour of footage is lying on a cutting room floor due to an overzealous editor.
Gio (Shiloh Fernandez) is a square peg in a round hole, born into a mob family; Gio is uncomfortable with the responsibilities that sit on his young shoulders following the murder of his father some years before. Gio’s older cousin Leo (Emory Cohen) has acted as his protector from a young age, but Leo is also a loose cannon. As Gio enters his twenties, Leo has already been in and out of prison several times in the family’s ongoing fight with Russian mobsters. Meanwhile, Gio’s mum, Sophia (Lorraine Bracco), has never recovered from the murder of her husband and is desperate to protect her son from the family business at all costs.
As Christmas approaches and his father’s death anniversary, Gio gets ready to attend the annual memorial dinner party, a night led by Gio’s mob boss uncle, Angelo (Val Kilmer). Tradition dictates Sophia bakes a cake in memory of her late husband for Gio to transport to the event. However, with Leo having disappeared, Gio feels nervous as he takes to the neon-lit streets of Brooklyn. Of course, Gio is right to feel apprehensive, as this night will change his life forever.
Jimmy Giannopoulos’s modern-day tale of Italian-American Brooklyn mobsters carries enormous potential by mixing elements of Donnie Brasco (1997) and A Bronx Tale (1993). Here, the film’s handheld camera work and fly-on-the-wall tour of Brooklyn’s nighttime economy are full of tension, alongside a cracking central performance from Fernandez. As Gio walks, cake in hand, the neon-lit streets come alive as we slowly build up to Gio’s arrival at Angelo’s residence. However, this tension deflates due to a narrative that struggles to match the performances and cinematography.
Ewan McGregor’s priest provides random narration in an attempt to connect the dots, feeling like a mere plot device to help the story work. At the same time, the rushed prologue featuring Gio as a teenager (David Mazouz) provides little space to explore the origins of Gio’s story. But most problematic is Leo’s story, which turns out to be nothing more than a side dish to the disappointing main meal. If I am right, and there is an alternative cut of this movie languishing on an editing room floor, I hope to see it one day. But, if I am wrong, The Birthday Cake will go down as one of the biggest baking disasters of 2021, with half the ingredients left out.