REVIEW: ‘The Birthday Cake’ (2021)

Rating: 2 out of 5.

“There are no subtle flavors to this cake, nor any masterful strokes of the icing on top. Instead, it is bogged down by an unruly amount of exposition.” 

The Birthday Cake is the latest entry in the world of mob movies. Directed by Jimmy Giannopoulos, the film follows Giovanni (Shiloh Fernandez) ten years after his father’s death as he brings a cake to the home of a mob boss. Despite its star-studded cast, including Ewan McGregor and former The Sopranos stars Lorraine Bracco and Vincent Pastore, The Birthday Cake is an underbaked film. 

A group of men, most of whom are dressed in fancy suits, gather around a table. A chandelier hangs over their head, while boxes, food, and wine glasses are on the table.
Image courtesy of Signature Entertainment

The film starts ten years earlier, immediately after the death of Giovanni’s father. A young Giovanni is confronted with two drastically different ways of approaching life and death. A community priest, Father Kelly (Ewan McGregor), counsels him on the nature of strength after a tragedy, while his cousin Leo (Emory Cohen) counsels him on the nature of violence after being weak. Ten years later, on the anniversary of his father’s death, Giovanni is forced to forge a path between these two approaches in order to protect those he cares about. Unfortunately, what might have otherwise been a resounding thematic premise falls flat as Giovanni himself flails in the face of any prospective shows of strength, instead becoming a simple witness to the dozens of people surrounding him who commit these violent acts. What is posed as the film’s fundamentally juxtaposed lesson of choosing between strength and violence is never actually resolved, only letting the audience get a quick peek behind the curtain at all that this film could have been.

The Birthday Cake falls short on several counts, but namely in its heavy-handed writing. There are no subtle flavors to this cake, nor any masterful strokes of the icing on top. Instead, it is bogged down by an unruly amount of exposition. Every single relevant piece of Giovanni’s history is explicitly explained in excruciating detail, every line of reasoning sold to the viewer like one might be sold a new car. Any surprises that might have been garnered by the film’s twists and turns are undercut by out-of-place and completely unnecessary narration by Father Kelly.

A man wearing a white collared shirt sits at a table. Bottles of wine are in front of him, and people's hands appear in frame.
Image courtesy of Signature Entertainment

Despite all this talking, The Birthday Cake doesn’t say much of anything new at all and barely scratches the surface of the rich character depth so frequently seen in mob-related fiction. Its writers seem too hesitant to fully explore their own premise, serving up one-dimensional characters, a wandering plotline, and themes that don’t pack much of a punch. The film makes ample use of mind-bogglingly out-of-place music that drones and whines, seemingly attempting to defy its own chosen genre in favor of music better suited for a science fiction film. Luckily, these music choices are so loud and pop up so frequently that they drown out all of that exposition. The cinematography plays more favorably, the camera beautifully chasing after Giovanni as he chases after a more coherent movie. Unfortunately, The Birthday Cake is not a film to celebrate.

Directed By: Jimmy Giannopoulos

Produced By: Diomedes Raul Bermudez, Danny Sawaf, Siena Oberman 

Cast: Shiloh Fernandez, Val Kilmer, Ewan McGregor, William Fichtner, Lorraine Bracco, Emory Cohen, Jeremy Allen White, Vincent Pastore

Release Date: July 16, 2021