The Birthday Cake doesn’t offer anything original, but its small-scale mob stylings will likely please a certain moviegoing demographic.
If the Internet is to be believed, Jimmy Giannopoulos is a drummer and music producer who formed the American R&B and electropop duo LOLAWOLF with actress and singer Zoë Kravitz in 2013. More famously, Giannopoulos was dating Dylan Penn, the daughter of Sean Penn and Robin Wright, in 2018, when the actress received a DUI and was sent to rehab, and Sean was famously captured on video giving Giannopoulos a verbal beatdown outside of his daughter’s rehabilitation center. All of this contextual information is merely to preface the improbability of Giannopoulos snagging such an impressive cast for his debut feature, the minor mob thriller The Birthday Cake. The film acts as a Rolodex of famous faces, with everyone from Ewan McGregor to Val Kilmer to Luis Guzman stopping by for a scene or two. Meanwhile, the inclusion of such mafia movie mainstays as Lorraine Bracco, Vincent Pastore, John Magaro, and even the late Paul Sorvino shouldn’t come as much of a surprise; when you settle into mafioso typecasting, the bookings are probably few and far between. Even the smallest role here is filled with a familiar face. But, while somewhat baffling, the explanation probably isn’t that complicated: in acting, there’s something enticing about tough-guy posturing, the kind of roles that ooze machismo. The logic follows for the movies that feature such plum roles, and The Birthday Cake is no exception.
Shiloh Fernandez — who took a stab at Hollywood heartthrob status ten years ago with the woefully misbegotten Red Riding Hood — stars as Giovanni, a decent and moral man caught up in the family business (not that one, the other one). On this particular night, he is headed to a dinner party hosted by his Uncle Angelo (Kilmer), the Godfather of this particular enterprise. The get-together is in honor of the 10-year anniversary of Gio’s father’s death, who was unfortunately caught in the crossfire of mob warfare. Armed with the titular cake baked by his mother (Bracco), Gio makes his way across Brooklyn on foot, allowing him the opportunity to run into all sorts of individuals of varying respectability along the way. If anything, the film generates most of its interest simply in allowing viewers to guess which special guest star Gio will happen upon next, including Aldis Hodge as a threatening FBI agent, Jeremy Allen White and Ashely Benson as a bickering married couple, William Fitchner as a dirty cop, Penn Badgley as a snitch bartender, and Emory Cohen as the troubled cousin whom everyone is naturally pursuing. That Cohen played this exact same character in 2019’s Killerman isn’t surprising, as the actor (or the Hollywood machine) has gone out of his (or its) way to destroy a career that could have flourished had he (it) only run with his romantic charm, a la Brooklyn. Meanwhile, McGregor pops up as a priest who also provides voiceover narration that exists solely to provide expository dumps and thread disparate scenes together (the fact that his appearance in this is less shocking than that of Marla Maples is both sad and understandable).
Some of this obvious stunt casting actually does prove beneficial to the material, however — namely Kilmer. Sporting an electrolarynx due to surgery resulting from throat cancer, Kilmer’s gaunt features and hushed vocal styling actually works to lend his character an air of menace that is deeply unsettling, as it elicits in the viewer an instinct to lean in to hear his troubled musings while always suggesting you might not like what you hear. In other words, Kilmer’s still got it, and The Birthday Cake takes full advantage of that charisma. The actor’s also present for the film’s best scene, a nasty little slice of vengeance that most viewers will see coming from a mile away, but which still proves to be a spiked delight. In fact, the same can be said for the film as a whole. No one is going to mistake The Birthday Cake for an original film, or even a very good one. Every element is distinctly clichéd, from the tough-guy dialogue delivered in outsized accents to the restless handheld camerawork to the sweaty close-ups and neon-lit strip clubs. But for a certain moviegoing demographic — this critic included — those very things also make for strangely endearing proceedings and an appealing throwback sheen. If there’s one thing that can always be counted on in this world, it’s a mob drama, no matter its scale. The Birthday Cake will do just fine until the next Scorsese feast.