“The Birthday Cake” is a lurid, blood-and-marinara-soaked mob movie, another tale of “this neighborhood’s changing” thanks to shifting demographics and an aging mafioso losing his grip. It’s also a coming-of-age story about a kid who wasn’t tough the first time the chips were down. Is he any tougher ten years later?
What it lacks in novelty it somewhat atones for in vivid, slice-of-a-sordid-life scenes, a tour of this corner of Brooklyn taken by our hero (Shiloh Fernandez of “Evil Dead” “and “Edge of Winter”), a young man on foot delivering his “mother’s famous cake” to a birthday party for his father.
On the walk in question, Gio walks into a convenience store, a bakery and a strip club. He’s button-holed by Federal agents and almost forgets the cake in a taxi. And at every step of the way, as he’s accosted, threatened and glad-handed, EVERYbody complains about his Uncle Angelo, the “old boss” who is losing ground on all fronts.
We saw it coming ten years before, as young Gio (David Mazouz) was egged into confronting the intruding “Russians” who humiliated him at school. And despite the best efforts of his Uncle Leo (Emory Cohen), the kid didn’t have it in him.
That came days after his father was murdered. And even though teen Gio only allowed himself to show any emotion to his priest (Ewan McGregor), he manned-up for the family, especially his mother (Lorraine Bracco).
Every year since, there’s been a birthday party for the dead dad, always at Uncle Angelo’s tacky mob mansion. But this year, with Feds and Russians closing in, and with Leo missing, mixed-up in “some business with the Puerto Ricans,” that walk is going to be fraught and interminable.
Fernandez, who is quite good in the lead and who co-wrote the script and co-produced this star vehicle, surrounded himself with stars, which gives the picture an unwieldy quality. Aggressive, noisy Italians over-populate every scene and both color this world he’s living in, and clutter it up.
The always-superb William Fichtner plays the uncle who’s a tough-guy cop. Penn Badgley is club-owner Peeno, John Magaro is one of the louder cousins, with Paul Sorvino a patriarch on a ventilator and Val Kilmer, well-cast as the aged, slipping boss Angelo, playing a man who (like Kilmer himself) has to speak through an electronic voice box.
And on that meandering walk, Gio falls into testy-cute arguments between the bakery-owning couple (Ashley Benson and Jeremy Allen White). They get impromptu marriage counseling from the taxi driver (Luis Guzmán) they all ride with.
A strip-club stop is de rigueur in such films — partly in the name of mob/cop movie authenticity, but mainly because producers like to be surrounded by naked strippers on set.
All those names and faces and locations overwhelm first-time feature director Jimmy Giannopoulos. He sloppily switches the film’s point of view, from Gio’s to others’, just often enough to break the flow. Most characters are poorly-served, as there are so many squeezed in.
In the end, clever third-act twist aside, the excess characters and story threads wreck the over-familiar mob movie recipe of this “Birthday Cake.” It doesn’t so much resolve as leave a bad taste in your mouth.
MPA Rating: R for pervasive language, violence, some sexual references, nudity and drug use
Cast: Shiloh Fernandez, Lorraine Bracco, William Fichtner, Aldis Hodge, Penn Badgley, Luis Guzmán, Ashley Benson, Emory Cohen, Ashley Benson, John Magaro, Paul Sorvino, Val Kilmer and Ewan McGregor
Credits: Directed by Jimmy Giannopoulos, script by Shiloh Fernandez, Diomedes Raul Bermudez and Jimmy Giannopoulos. A Screen Media release.
Running time: 1:33