The “Goodfellas”-Lite Brooklyn mob story “The Birthday Cake” is one of those movies where old familiar faces pop up in even the smallest roles. Hey, there’s Luiz Guzman as a cabdriver with a philosophical bent! Whoa, that’s Paul Sorvino as an elderly don hooked up to an oxygen tank! And isn’t that Vincent Pastore a.k.a. Big Pussy from “The Sopranos” playing essentially the same guy?
Not to mention William Fichtner as a seriously corrupt and unhinged cop; Lorraine Bracco as the grieving widow of a mysteriously murdered mobster; Val Kilmer as the neighborhood kingpin, who speaks through an electronic voice box (as Kilmer does in real life after undergoing a tracheotomy during his throat cancer treatment); Aldis Hodge as tough-talking FBI agent; Ewan McGregor as “Father Kelly,” who narrates the story, and the list goes on and on. Alas, even with all that firepower and some truly tense and harrowing moments, “The Birthday Cake” eventually grows a little stale and falls short of its ambitions to be a lower-budget descendant to films such as the aforementioned “Goodfellas” and “A Bronx Tale.”
First-time feature director Jimmy Giannopoulos shows a steady hand for capturing the neighborhood vibe, where everybody knows everybody’s business and much of that business is on the shady side of the law. With the exception of an extended flashback scene taking place 10 years prior to current day, “The Birthday Cake” revolves around one intense and violent night around Christmastime, when Bracco’s Sofia bakes a special cake to honor her late, slain husband’s birthday, and entrusts her son Gio (Shiloh Fernandez) to deliver the dessert to the annual memorial/party held by his Uncle Angelo (Kilmer).
Gio’s endeavors to transport the cake across town will meet with a series of roadblocks and detours, with stops at a bodega and a bakery and a strip club along the way. Everyone from the feds to a corrupt cop to various “connected” relatives of Gio are looking for his cousin Leo (Emory Cohen), who has disappeared after getting involved in some drug dealings gone sour and might have talked to the authorities — and you can imagine how well that goes over with the likes of Cousin Joey and Uncle Vito and Uncle Tiny Tony and let’s not forget Uncle Carmine.
With Ewan McGregor’s Father Kelly providing the omniscient narration, Gio eventually finds his way to the celebration, where he’s still treated like a kid and it’s clear he’s far too sensitive to tread among these sharks. The young man has a moral compass, for crying out loud.
William Fichtner has an electric extended cameo as Uncle Ricardo, the dirty cop in the family, who is so hot-headed and violent even the old-time mobster uncles think he’s crazy and want no part of him. A scene in which Ricardo has captured and detained Cousin Leo and is, shall we say, interrogating him is reminiscent of the infamous chainsaw sequence in “Scarface,” though not in the same league of violent horror.
That’s the thing with “The Birthday Cake.” It will keep reminding you of better movies in the same genre.