Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 18, 2021)
Would I classify 2021’s The Birthday Cake as a film with an all-star cast? Nope, but with folks like Val Kilmer, Ewan McGregor, Lorraine Bracco and many others in tow, it qualifies as a flick with a raft of well-known talent, even if few would really qualify as “stars”.
10 years ago, the father of Gio (David Mazouz) died under suspicious circumstances. In the present day, Gio (Shiloh Fernandez) continues a family tradition in which he must bring a birthday cake to an annual memorial hosted by his Uncle Angelo (Kilmer).
Angelo operates as a major mafia boss in Brooklyn, and on this particular day, Gio starts to learn some unsettling truths about what happened to his father a decade earlier. This leads Gio to a violent reckoning about his family and his past.
Gangster tales are a dime a dozen and date back to the early days of motion pictures. To quality as worthwhile, a film in that genre needs to give us a fresh perspective or at least provide exceptional execution.
Do we find either or both in Cake? No. Instead, we get a complete mess.
From the very start, Cake makes it clear that it wants to come across like a movie from the 1970s, even though it also clearly takes 1990’s classic GoodFellas as a strong influence.
Of course, that’s not unique, as plenty of flicks over the last 30 years took cues from Scorsese. However, Cake really wears this influence on its sleeve in a mix of ways, including the non-coincidental choice to include a handful of GoodFellas actors like Bracco and Paul Sorvino in the cast.
Oddly, Cake also gives off a Spike Lee vibe at times, with a weird Do the Right Thing feel on occasion. Whatever the influence, these choices ensure that Cake never feels original.
As mentioned earlier, Cake could compensate for a derivative nature with quality execution. Unfortunately, it fails to prosper in that realm either.
While my synopsis implies that Cake comes with a plot, it doesn’t really. The titular baked treat offers nothing more than a weird MacGuffin, and the “story” does little more than collect a bunch of random scenes and link them in the vaguest manner.
This leads to a slew of genre clichés with little momentum or purpose. It feels like the screenplay of Cake comes from a computer that analyzed 100 gangster movies and collated this as a result.
How in the world did co-writer/director Jimmy Giannopoulus attract such a reasonably high-powered cast to this catastrophe? I can’t imagine Cake enjoyed a big budget, and it seems clear that most of the actors only needed to work a day or two, as most offer glorified cameos.
Still, the slew of “name” actors implies a level of quality Cake can’t approach. Something about it attracted these known quantities, but I can’t figure out what.
Have I seen a crummier gangster flick than Cake? Probably.
Can I think of one right now? Nope. Incoherent and pointless, this movie becomes a borderline unwatchable disaster.