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PATIENT: Birthday Girl

Profile: Fish-out-of-water story about Russian mail-order bride, intrigue and betrayal that midstream spawns into tepid romance, predictability and poor grooming habits. Think Green Card meets Something Wild meets 15 Minutes meets Hair: The Boris Yeltsin Story. Symptoms: The movie starts by playing upon people's fear of and revulsion toward Russians—their complete lack of hair and fashion sense, their bizarre sexual appetites, and their all-around evilness. So far, so good. The buttoned-down English bank clerk hero gradually falls for his cash-in-advance Russian bride, and then some Yakov Smirnoff-looking guy shows up with a friend and cons the guy into ripping off his own bank. Turns out the woman—whose lover is Yakov's buddy—is in on the con and was just letting the bank guy have sex with her to gain his confidence. (Apparently, pimping out your girlfriend, like selling nuclear secrets, is just part of the Russian courting process—wotta country!) Good stuff. Unfortunately, it ends 45 minutes into the film. From then on, we get a story that assaults all reason and dramatic tension. What started out interesting devolves into the usual schlep—you know exactly where the movie is going; it's just a matter of figuring out which manipulation they'll use to get there. Turns out the clerk is able to outwit the career criminals using skills honed by a lifetime of giving correct change. Turns out he and the woman fall in love because they share a conversation around a campfire and he sees her in a creek. Eventually, they fly off to Russia to live happily ever after . . . until they have to sell their kidneys. Well, I'm assuming.
Kidman and Mathieu Kassovitz
Diagnosis: A terrific climax after 45 minutes is usually a good thing . . . or so I've been told. Prescription: You've already made your movie, and you already have a terrific ending (the moment the man realizes he has been conned by the woman he thought loved him). Just take your time. There's plenty to be mined here, whether it's the courtship or the con men. The key is to go slowly, never let us feel as if we're ahead of the game, and when we do believe we understand, twist the story the other way. Make tense moments funny and funny moments tense. Make us wonder about the woman and her friends: What are their motives? Why do they always seem to be sweating even when they're sitting inside on a rainy day? Build on our exasperation until we think we finally, finally have figured out what's going on and then throw a wrench in that. You do remember the rush you got at the end of The Usual Suspects, don't you? As you con him, con us. We'll leave the theater thrilled, invigorated and alive to the knowledge of just how dangerous love, storytelling and Russians can be.
 
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