“The Birthday Cake” – A bitter taste [MOVIE REVIEW]
“The Birthday Cake,” an ambitious attempt at a gangster film by director Jimmy Giannopoulos from a script co-written by Giannopoulos, Diomedes Raul Bermudez, and Shiloh Fernandez, falls just short of the mark. Reverential to genre tropes that have worked in the past and almost work here, Giannopoulos begins in the past, allowing us to see the growth, or rather lack thereof in the characters we will follow over the course of one day ten years later.
Gio, a good boy from a connected family, has stayed out of trouble, unlike his brother Leo, a hunted drug dealer. Gio is loyal to a fault, a pussy in the eyes of everyone but his mother. Equipped with blinders that have prevented him from recognizing the circumstances of his father’s murder, something that literally everyone but Gio knows was at the hand of his own family of mafioso kingpins. This is both the 10th anniversary of his father’s death and the birthday of his Uncle Angelo, the former boss of the neighborhood who has steadily lost his grip and control to all the rival ethnic gangs. Like every year in the past, Gio’s mother Sofia has baked a cake, and like every past birthday/anniversary, it will be Gio who delivers it to the party held for Angelo. This time, however, Sofia will not be attending.
His mother’s last words to him are to visit Father Kelly at church and be careful as he navigates the neighborhood, a hot bed of non-Italian criminals and thugs, as well as FBI agents and police looking for his brother Leo. The FBI is looking to leverage Leo into divulging what he knows about the family; the policeman, his vicious and corrupt Uncle Ricardo needs to make sure that Leo remains silent.
As Gio makes his way to his Uncle’s house, he finds himself in the middle of assaults, murder, and betrayal. Arriving at his Uncle’s house puts him in a different kind of danger.
The premise is a good one and the cast is excellent with one significant exception. Shiloh Fernandez plays Gio with one note of goggle-eyed incredulity, denying the character any growth. Whether it’s finding a dead body or someone else beaten to within an inch of his life, or having the penny eventually drop on what really happened to his father, Fernandez plays it all with jaw dropping dumbstruck fear and little nuance. As the film depends on Gio’s journey, presumably into manhood, one is left with the feeling that his wide-eyed innocence is actually an indication of the dull brain of an intellectually stunted child who finally discovers that there is no Santa Claus and that everyone else knew it.
What makes this failure a pity is the acting of everyone else in the film. Giannopoulos has directed a veritable Actors’ Studio’s worth of gangster characters, whether it’s the over-the-top but believable violence of William Fichtner’s Uncle Ricardo, the corrupt cop; or the turncoat betrayal of Gio’s friend Peeno as played by Penn Badgley; or the gravitas brought to the role of family stalwart and past enforcer Vito as played with nuance and palpable threat by Vincent Pastore. Less successful is the casting of Val Kilmer as Uncle Angelo. Kilmer, a throat cancer survivor, now speaks through a trachea device, necessitating subtitles when he delivers his lines. Although brave of the actor to take on the role, his disability leaves him incapable of demonstrating the threat, diminished as it may be, that he once was.
Lorraine Bracco as Gio’s mother Sophia is a lesson in controlled emotion, hiding a lifetime’s worth of restraint and retribution while demonstrating thorough love and protection for the one son who did not betray her. Her limited time on screen is memorable and helps sustain the thread of Gio’s journey with the birthday cake. Ewan McGregor, in the thankless role of the family priest, still finds the sympathy and depth in a poorly conceived role to anchor Gio. He also serves as the voice-over narrator of the film, filling in expository background on some of the characters. His last scene, however, defies credulity and religious dogma in what he has been set up to do for Gio.
Opening June 18 at the Laemmle NoHo and Video on Demand.
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