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Review: The Birthday Cake – “A modern feel to an old concept”

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Ewan Mcgregor and Shiloh Fernandez in The Birthday Cake

Crime dramas based in the world of the mob aren’t usually my genre of choice.  I find they usually have too many characters with stereotypical names and often convoluted plots that may circle around rival mob history that isn’t well established.  They are often refuges for type-cast actors who make careers out of playing mobsters.  There is bound to be a run in with the feds, a job gone bad, inner turmoil or double-crossing within the group.  They’re films full of men where any female character is typically there only as wife or girlfriend, rarely a part of the business or even a fully fleshed out character.  For some, the predictability and reliability in what to expect might make these films attractive, but for me these tropes are the main reason I tend to avoid many entries to the genre, and they are all present in The Birthday Cake.

Giovanni (Shiloh Fernandez) is a seemingly gentle young man, quick to avoid the violence that took his father a decade prior.  He is devout to his mother (Lorraine Bracco) and his church where he is watched over by Father Kelly (Ewan McGregor making room for himself alongside Fleabag‘s Andrew Scott in the ‘Hot Priest’ club).  Gio, as he’s known to his family and friends, is well aware that there is a difference between family and “The Family” though he is about to be immersed in a tug of war between them and their ideologies.  As he puts on his suit jacket ready to head to the annual celebration of his late father’s birthday, his mother hands him the titular homemade birthday cake.  Despite having distanced herself from the rest of the relatives, it’s an annual tradition that cannot be broken.

As Gio makes his way through the Brooklyn streets towards his Uncle Angelo’s (Val Kilmer) house, birthday cake in hand, he runs into an assortment of cousins and family members as well as a couple federal agents, all of whom are on the look out for Cousin Leo.  Leo has recently been released from prison, and while he hasn’t even called his mother yet, he has had time to get himself into a bit of a trouble both with his own family, the aforementioned agents, and the rival Puerto Ricans.  Gio, a nice guy who has seemingly been protected from the worst of the neighbourhood drama, takes it upon himself to try and find his cousin and best friend Leo, or at least shield him from danger.  As he becomes embroiled in Leo’s transgressions, Gio finds himself face to face with the violence he’s tried to avoid, all while revealing more information about his father’s untimely death.

Director Jimmy Giannopoulos, who also co-wrote the film alongside Diomedes Raul Bermudez and star Shiloh Fernandez, attempts to inject a modern feel to an old concept.  Working with a story that takes place almost entirely in one night is a fresh take on the mobster movie, shot in a Brooklyn that is decidedly different than that depicted in similar films from yesteryear.  It’s still gritty but more hipster.  More Ubers than taxis, more bodegas than dive bars.  Shooting mainly at night helps to increase the menace of the city streets, but a true sense of suspenseful danger is never fully captured.  Action is a long time coming in this film and if you’re looking for a big shootout or car chase you’re likely to be disappointed.  The vast majority of the film is following Gio through many, many conversations with the vast number of supporting players he encounters.

I usually take notes during the films I review but it almost became a necessity to keep track of all the named characters and their significance.  There are so many cousins and uncles with familiar mobster faces like Goodfellas alumni Paul Sorvino and Vincent Pastore (who also featured in The Sopranos).  William Fichtner (Prison Break, Mom) plays the menacing Uncle Ricardo, prone to violence that’s seemingly difficult for the family to rein in.  Though Ricardo is unpredictable, it is Val Kilmer’s Uncle Angelo who is decidedly the most dangerous.  Kilmer, whose battle with throat cancer cost him his voice, chooses the words he speaks with his artificial voice box carefully.  As Angelo he is pensive, but not passive.  He asserts himself even if it’s more reserved and he commands your attention on screen, easily one of the more compelling characters here.  Appearances by Penn Badgley, John Magaro, Aldis Hodge, Emory Cohen, and Luis Guzmán are amongst the other familiar faces you might note.

In the end, The Birthday Cake as a movie is fine.  But just fine.  Fernandez does an admirable job as the hero of this story, but while I’d be happy to see more work from the actor, the film itself doesn’t make itself particularly memorable.   This isn’t going to be the next Goodfellas, despite employing a few of its actors.  While it’s clear Giannopoulos wants to pay tribute to the mobster movies of the past, his attempt at modernizing the genre falls short by allowing familiar tropes to overtake its potential.

The Birthday Cake is released in theatres and on demand June 18, 2021.

Note for those sensitive to animal scenes – while not directly depicted on screen a dog is shot and body shown briefly.

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