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 windows? The soft, bouncy cakes, glistening chocolate and thick double cream, calling to you like a sugar angel from on high. Soon, the allure becomes too much to handle, and before you know it, you are walking through the door. As you order the cake, you are full of optimism and excitement. And as you leave, your treat in hand, you look forward to savouring its delights. But, as 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 disappointment is heightened by a bland taste; your optimism quickly fading as you realise the cake is nothing but a disappointment.
Like that cake in the window, Director Jimmy Giannopoulos’ The Birthday Cake looks promising but is ultimately disappointing. His star-studded movie stuffed to the brim with potential and brief moments of brilliance. However, these fleeting moments are all too often lost in an ocean of problems. These problems stem from a lack of space and time in focusing on the back story and characters at the film’s heart. The narrative arc rushed, confusing and full of gaping holes from the first scene to the last. Ultimately, this leads to a feeling of incompleteness as the final credits roll. In fact, I found myself wondering whether there is another hour of footage laying 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; his duties escalated by his father’s murder. His older cousin Leo (Emory Cohen) acting as his protector from a young age. But, Leo is also a loose cannon, and as Gio enters his twenties, Leo has already been in and out of prison in the families ongoing fight with Russian mobsters. Meanwhile, having never recovered from her husband’s death, Gio’s mum Sophia (Lorraine Bracco) is desperate to protect her son from the family business at all costs.
With Christmas approaching alongside the anniversary of his father’s death, Gio gets ready to attend the annual memorial and dinner party. A night led by Gio’s mob boss uncle, Angelo (Val Kilmer). And just as tradition dictates, Sophia has baked a special cake in memory of her late husband for Gio to transport. However, with Leo having disappeared, Gio feels nervous as he takes to the neon-lit streets of Brooklyn, cake in hand. And Gio is right to feel apprehensive, as this is the night his life changes forever.
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Jimmy Giannopoulos modern-day tale of Italian-American Brooklyn mobsters carries enormous potential. Mixing elements of Donnie Brasco (1997) with A Bronx Tale (1993). The films handheld camera work and fly-on-the-wall tour of Brooklyn’s nighttime economy full of tension, alongside the natural performance of Fernandez and an enviable ensemble cast. The neon-lit streets coming alive as we slowly build up to Gio’s arrival at Angelo’s residence. So what’s not to love, right?
Unfortunately, the answer to this question is a lot. First, we have Ewan McGregor’s priest, who tops and tales the movie while providing random narration to join the dots in the story. His character a mere plot device, with no exploration of his beliefs or role in the family unit. Second, we have a rushed prologue featuring Gio as a teenager (David Mazouz). Here, there is no opportunity to define the story’s origins or build any sense of emotional attachment to Gio. The result is a lack of exploration of the family structure and history through minimal character development. Third, Leo’s story is ultimately a mess, a poorly executed side that should have accompanied the main meal. Finally, tied to this, we have William Fichtner’s corrupt cop Uncle Ricardo. His role in the movie instrumental yet underplayed. The result a mere pantomime villain who deserved so much more.
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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 worst baking disasters of 2021. With half the ingredients mistakenly left out, leading to a flat, tasteless and disappointing birthday surprise.