The Birthday Cake: Jumbled Flavors, by Dayne Linford
Caught between the movies it wants to be and the movie it is, The Birthday Cake struggles tonally from the first scene to the last. Gio (Shiloh Fernandez) travels across Brooklyn to deliver a cake to his Uncle Angelo (Val Kilmer), a mafia boss, following an annual tradition commemorating his father’s violent death 10 years earlier. Along the way, in between various New York character types, federal officers accost him and gangsters pointedly query regarding the whereabouts of his cousin, Leo (Emory Cohen), whose hideaway Gio attempts to protect. The trip across town evokes one kind of narrative, the New York ambulatory film – a specialty of Spike Lee, early Scorsese, and Sidney Lumet – while the stakes set up a typical young mafioso film, an interesting reduction of Gio’s twin worlds through genre. However, the impulses, pleasures, and requirements of these genres are often opposed, and The Birthday Cake is unable to bridge the difference, especially with a tacked on, curveball ending.
Director Jimmy Giannopoulos has clearly done his homework, flipping through genre hallmarks like a rolodex. From the corner store confrontation to the grand criminal conspiracy, we veer between worlds, lacking any kind of connective tissue. What should unite these disparate, largely urban narratives is a powerful sense of family and deep community ties, an intimate familiarity between characters that see each other nearly every day. That familiarity is completely lacking here, so the inherent weight it lends to the drama, the underlying tension of a community barely held together, is also lacking. It’s not surprising, then, that our central character, Gio, is also devoid of emotional stakes, having no community to either impact or be impacted by. The central drama tenuously rotates around whether he’ll stay a regular, nice New Yorker or become a mobster, but the question is never actually considered by Gio himself, who remains passive the entirety of the film. Fernandez’s performance reinforces this inertia, making his moment of greatest conviction a refusal of a piece of the titular cake – he is allergic to chocolate.
The most egregious element of Giannopoulos’ rolodex method of filmmaking is his cast of great character actors, all thrown aside in bit parts, filmed in close-up regardless of their function in the film, as if the camera knows they’re big. Lorraine Bracco is underutilized as Gio’s long-suffering mother, Luiz Guzman practically trashcanned as an unflappable cabbie, Paul Sorvino kept to a chair and a single, bad line. Vincent Pastore, best known for playing Pussy in The Sopranos, here adopts a consigliere role, and steals every scene he’s in. Val Kilmer, speaking through a valve, allows a quiet menace but his most impactful scenes as written are shared with Fernandez, who gives him nothing. All of them are hamstrung by a speechified script, another little bit of genre check-marking. Ewan McGregor is the most bizarre bit of casting, as Father Kelly, a local priest who takes an active interest in Gio – that is, for the two scenes in which he is present. He also supplies voiceover narration, as if to clarify, but which is only pointlessly confusing, defeating its own purpose.
According to McGregor, this is the story of how Gio becomes a man. If so, this story should achieve a kind of synthesis between the genres Giannopoulos takes as scripture, reflecting a change in the character, both film and protagonist becoming a whole from disparate, competing parts. Instead, lacking a strong agent to carry us through his world, we ping pong between derivative set-ups portrayed capably, but utterly lacking insight and emotional heft. Each of these scenes drags down the momentum of the film, caught with a character we won’t think of again or a moment when we only think of other films. Lurching to the next scene, the film struggles to catch up with itself but never actually does. As it finishes with a series of non-sequitur revelations that thoroughly rob the film’s Brooklyn of what little humanity it has left, each character plays out their confused parts in mechanical obedience to other movies, other scripts, other ideas. The sad part is they have no choice – they have no ideas here to follow.