The Birthday Cake
Gio brings a cake to a memorial celebration for the 10th anniversary of his father’s mysterious death, hosted by his uncle (Kilmer), a Brooklyn mafia boss. His life begins to change as he pieces together what really happened to his father.
Everyone in the city seems to know Gio’s name. He hears it from every street corner as he walks about Brooklyn, from virtually every kind of person imaginable – hipster bar owners and priests, mentors and murderers. If Gio (Shiloh Fernandez) always seems surprised to hear his name, it’s because the objective of his walk is pretty intense: bringing a birthday cake to a party thrown by his mob boss uncle (Val Kilmer) to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Gio’s father.
If Gio himself is unknown to us, the archetype of his story certainly is more familiar. First-time director Jimmy Giannopoulos is acutely aware of the weight mob movies hold, especially in New York City. Every aspect of the production seems to shine with reverence for mob movie history: a crooning Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons open the film; Lorraine Bracco and Paul Sorvino appear in supporting roles that nod vigorously to their past magic in Goodfellas. Moves like these make us feel at home in the story, nostalgic for its themes even though the setting is modern.
Shiloh’s Gio is friendly, but reserved – an earnest blank canvas. Robbed of his father at an early age, he relies on his cousin Leo (Emory Cohen) and the kindly priest Father Kelly (Ewan McGregor). On paper, it’s hard to find two more polarizing father figures than a priest and a mobster, but just wait – the film doesn’t take the easy way out.
Giannopoulos’s background in music videos is well served – music anchors complements and drives the narrative forward at all times. The early joyous do-wop tracks gradually give way to modern rock and rap as the night goes on and Gio gets himself in more and more trouble. It’s supposed to be Christmastime, but the soundtrack makes clear there is barely any Christmas cheer to speak of. I was impressed by the way Giannopoulos’ camera mirrored this descent, gradually taking the audience from bright Bensonhurst streets into a perverse night of neon bakeries and bars.
If The Birthday Cake has one major weakness, it is its inability to fully leverage its broad, talented cast. Aldis Hodge flits on and off the screen so fast you wonder if he stumbled onto the set by accident. Though they seem to represent Gio’s moral compass, Leo and Father Kelly barely cobble together 15 minutes of combined screen time. Only Luis Guzman truly capitalizes on his short cameo, driving a spark of pure comedy into an otherwise dark narrative.
Adult men in the world of The Birthday Cake seemed to be defined by their absence, their silence, by time cut short. Gio’s cousin Leo spends the majority of the film off-screen, his presence only hinted at through phone calls or text messages. Even fearsome Angelo, hobbled by a past shooting, is unable to truly speak, with a raspy squeak the only trace of what must have once been a fearsome roar. Over it all hangs the specter of Gio’s absent father.
I wish the film had done some heavier lifting to build on that central theme for a story so preoccupied with memory. I left the film wishing I had been given the opportunity to see more of these men, these memories, through Gio’s eyes. Instead, I left feeling like I’d seen a film that still had more to say.
In Theaters and On-Demand on June 18, 2021
Directed by: Jimmy Giannopoulos
Written by: Jimmy Giannopoulos, Diomedes Raul Bermudez, and Shiloh Fernandez
Director of Photography: Sean Price Williams (Good Time, The Color Wheel)
Shiloh Fernandez (Evil Dead, Red Riding Hood)
Ewan McGregor (Moulin Rouge!, Trainspotting, August: Osage County)
Val Kilmer (The Doors, The Saint, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang)
Lorraine Bracco (Goodfellas, “The Sopranos,” Medicine Man)
Ashley Benson (Spring Breakers, “Pretty Little Liars,” Her Smell)
Aldis Hodge (One Night in Miami, Hidden Figures, Straight Outta Compton)
Penn Badgley (“Gossip Girl,” “You”, Margin Call)
Emory Cohen (The Place Beyond the Pines, “The OA”)
Vincent Pastore (“The Sopranos,” Revolver, Shark Tale)
Jeremy Allen White (“Shameless,” Movie 43, The Rental)