The Birthday Cake, 2021.
Directed by Jimmy Giannopoulos.
Starring Shiloh Fernandez, Ewan McGregor, Val Kilmer, Lorraine Bracco, William Fichtner, Aldis Hodge, Penn Badgley, Jeremy Allen White, Ashley Benson, Luis Guzmán, John Magaro, Paul Sorvino, David Mazouz, Jake Weary, Emory Cohen, Vincent Pastore, Marla Maples, Franky G, Joseph D’Onofrio, Emily Tremaine, Nick Vallelonga, Jordan Lane, Price Tyler, Dean Flores, Anthony Mangano, Clara McGregor, Sergio Rizzuto, Emilio Vitolo, Nathalie Rock, Max Daniels, Isabelle Phillips, Andrea Barnes, and Frank Vallelonga.
On the 10th anniversary of his father’s death, Giovanni reluctantly accepts the task of bringing a cake to the home of his uncle, a mob boss, for a celebration. Just two hours into the night, Gio’s life is forever changed.
Everything about the synopsis, from the flashback prologue to the title itself, The Birthday Cake, provides a fairly obvious idea of what happened and where the narrative will end. Such predictability might be frustrating in other hands (and occasionally still is here with quite a few empty yet mildly amusing diversions), but director Jimmy Giannopoulos (writing the script alongside Diomedes Raul Bermudez and star Shiloh Fernandez) has the execution down in tandem with a modern-day look at Italian-American Brooklyn mobsters. It’s as if someone came up with the idea for a cleverly rousing finale and worked backward to get the story across the finish line. Fortunately, the journey in there is also logical and tense, as if the situation could escalate at any moment.
Gio (Shiloh Fernandez) is clearly unfit for the lifestyle he was born into, unable to stand up to Russian bullies at a young age and requiring a push from his hotheaded cousin Leo (Emory Cohen) to fight back. In fairness, giving someone a gun is also probably not the correct way to teach someone self-worth and to defend themselves, but it’s clear that Leo means well looking after his cousin, whereas most other relatives probably don’t care. Gio’s father has tragically passed, whereas his mother Sophia (Goodfellas‘ Lorraine Bracco) has spiraled into a depression over his passing.
Flash forward 10 years, and Gio, while seemingly still doesn’t belong, has also built up a backbone while still carrying around insecurities. Set around Christmas time, which also coincides with the tenth anniversary of his father’s death, Sophia bakes a cake every year for the large family (it’s practically impossible to keep track of how many cousins and uncles there are, although it does allow a variety of familiar sub-genre actors to make pleasant appearances). However, she doesn’t attend the family get-together herself. As a result, she entrusts Gio to deliver the dessert, who grows frustrated, muttering that he’s too old to be seen doing so.
Nevertheless, Gio does oblige setting out on a personal odyssey of discovering family secrets, all of which are easily cracked by everyone but him. It’s also intentional on behalf of The Birthday Cake; characters talk in private about what really happened to Gio’s father. There’s also a matter of Leo potentially being involved with disgraceful drug dealing antics opposite Puerto Ricans and has the FBI breathing down his neck. With that in mind, the film is also about a crossroads of doing the right thing, although first, Gio has to actually figure out what’s right. It’s also clear that there is plenty of racial tension within this borough, which is surprisingly addressed in a rather humorous and heartfelt scene from Luis Guzman as a cab driver letting his Puerto Rican pride show.
In the present day, the head of the table, Uncle Angelo is played by Val Kilmer, which admittedly is one of the higher points. There are no camera tricks or attempts to hide his throat cancer or difficulty speaking; he’s just allowed to act with subtitles across the screen while still possessing the ability to command a room. I’m not entirely sure if Val Kilmer needs money or if he genuinely wants to continue acting (and if it’s the latter, he has every right to do so with writers finding suitable ways of incorporating him into a story), but there’s definitely no sense of pity watching him here compared to something god-awful like The Snowman. By no means is it a great performance, and there is a misstep giving some unnecessary exposition about why the character has trouble speaking. Still, it’s enjoyable to see Val Kilmer here and offers intrigue as to what he will be given to do in Top Gun: Maverick.
As a matter of fact, all of the performances here are serviceable to good. Shiloh Fernandez gives a nuanced turn questioning family loyalty while also seeking advice from a long time trusted friendly priest (Ewan McGregor), Lorraine Bracco shines with limited screen time, reliable performers such as William Fichtner, as per usual, excel at evilness, and the minor supporting players all breathe more liveliness into the family as a whole. The Birthday Cake comes up short, fleshing out certain details and characters, but it almost doesn’t matter given the uniquely suspenseful final 30 minutes. There is also a chance from reading this review or the synopsis alone you know how it’s going to end, but I assure you it doesn’t take away from the excitement when it’s happening.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com