There is without a doubt something to be said for getting an audience up close and personal with a movie’s protagonist, for having the camera regularly scan the individual’s face, displaying their expressions, and getting us to try to read this person with whom we’re spending so much time. Providing that experience, however, isn’t the only key to having a successful film. There are many, many other elements, not the least of which is having a compelling story.
It is certainly true that director Jimmy Giannopoulos’ mafia tale, “The Birthday Cake,” gets us up close and personal with our lead character, Gio, played by Shiloh Fernandez (who wrote the script with Giannopoulos and Diomedes Raul Bermudez), and that we get to know Gio very well over the course of a single dizzying night. That is definitely to the good, but in so many other ways the film misses the mark.
After a brief prologue, the tale here finds Gio getting ready for a dinner on the 10th anniversary of his father’s death. His mother, Sofia (Lorraine Bracco), asks Gio to bring the cake for the dinner over to the house of his Uncle, Angelo (Val Kilmer). As Gio makes his trek and tries to meet up with his cousin, Leo (Emory Cohen), on the way, he runs into a huge number of people, both good and bad, and hears what they have to say.
Everyone has an opinion on something, whether it’s Leo (who may have flipped on the family), Angelo (whose grasp on the area is waning), or anything else. The vast majority of the film is just this – Gio talking to these folks and hearing or seeing how the neighborhood is falling apart. Make no mistake however, this isn’t the story of a neighborhood that’s having troubles. They are a backdrop so that we can understand Gio, where he’s from, and what his life is all about.
Perhaps in an attempt to have the overarching story gel more, Ewan McGregor plays the local Priest, Father Kelly, and provides a modicum of voiceover. Kelly offers up some background information, but nothing McGregor reads is particularly compelling nor is it said in a compelling way.
What we really have with “The Birthday Cake” is a variation on the Tony Soprano take of having come in at the end. Rather than getting a years-long look at what that means and the way Tony tries to hold it all together, we have a brief movie that is more about cleaning up the tracks that have been left behind. Gio is the closest the movie comes to having a well-rounded character, and most of the time we see him bewildered and acted upon rather than making definitive choices about how to proceed. There is little push and pull, it is just push.
In lieu of a compelling story for Gio and some fleshed out secondary characters, Giannopoulos throws in cameo after cameo after slightly longer cameo after something approaching a supporting role. In addition to Bracco, Kilmer, and McGregor filling those spots, there are also appearances by Luis Guzman, Paul Sorvino, Penn Badgley, William Fichtner, Vincent Pastore, Aldis Hodge, John Magaro, Ashley Benson, Clara McGregor, and Marla Maples (to name a few). It is a large and eclectic cast, to be sure, but few of the appearances are put to good use, and none are used enough.
Giannopoulos and director of photography Sean Price Williams offer up a unique and routinely hazy look at this would-be mafioso’s world, with the camera often in quite close and shaking around. The effect is to keep us off-balance and while that undeniably adds to the story and helps get us inside Gio’s head, too often we fail to understand the geography of any given location. We spend time trying to figure out what a room looks like and how it’s setup rather than focusing on what is happening at any given moment with Gio.
By the time the whole story winds down, we can’t help but wonder what the world looked like for these people (or their relatives) two decades earlier, or what it will look like a decade down the line. Even if the movie isn’t very interesting, there’s a clear establishment of a family—a dynasty—that we long to know more about.
We may get inside Gio’s head during “The Birthday Cake,” but he winds up feeling like the least interesting character around. This is a neighborhood with stories, and Gio’s feels as though it might be amongst the least interesting, it is unfortunate that it is the one told in the greatest detail.
photo credit: Screen Media Films