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? If you have, I am sure you will agree; the soft, bouncy cakes, glistening chocolate, and thick double cream call to you like a sugar angel from on high. Before long, the allure becomes too much to handle, and you walk 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 cake is nothing but a disappointment.
Like that disappointing but alluring cake in the window, Director Jimmy Giannopoulos’ The Birthday Cake looks promising but is ultimately frustrating. Here his star-studded movie is stuffed to the brim with potential and brief moments of brilliance. However, these fleeting moments are lost in an ocean of problems. The Birthday Cake’s issues stem from a lack of space and time to focus on the back story and characters at the film’s heart. Here the narrative arc feels rushed, confusing and full of gaping holes from the first scene to the last, leading to a hollow feeling as the final credits roll. In fact, I wondered whether there was another hour of footage lying on a cutting room floor due to an overzealous editor.
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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. As a result, Gio’s older cousin Leo (Emory Cohen) has acted 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 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 alongside the anniversary of his father’s death, Gio gets ready to attend the annual memorial dinner party, a night led by Gio’s mob boss uncle, Angelo (Val Kilmer). 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. Of course, Gio is right to feel apprehensive, as this is the night that will change his life forever.
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Jimmy Giannopoulos’s modern-day tale of Italian-American Brooklyn mobsters carries enormous potential in 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 is full of tension, alongside a cracking performance from Fernandez – 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? Unfortunately, the answer to this question is a lot.
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First, we have Ewan McGregor’s priest, who provides random narration to join the dots in the story. McGregor’s character feels like a mere plot device, with no exploration of his beliefs or role in the family unit. Then we have the 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. Finally, Leo’s story is a mess, a poorly cooked side dish that should have improved the 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.