An amazing ensemble cast has come together for gangster drama The Birthday Cake, the directorial debut of Jimmy Giannopoulos. The contained ‘day in the life’ plot centres around Gio (Shiloh Fernandez), the youngest footsoldier of an Italian American organised crime family who, as a tradition, continue to celebrate the birthday of their late patriarch. To mark the tenth anniversary of his passing, an extra special gathering is arranged, and Gio’s mother Sofia (Lorraine Bracco) assigns him the task of delivering the cake. He arrives to a warm reception from Angelo (Val Kilmer), Joey (John Magaro), Vito (Vincent Pastore), Ricardo (William Fichtner), and more. However, when it transpires that Leo (Emory Cohen) is missing, a chain of events is set in motion that reveal a dark secret from his past.
Blatantly a big fan of films of this ilk, Giannopoulos’s style leans heavily into crime genre tropes from the get-go. Ideas behind the crooning soundtrack, the cinematography, the voice-over narration are all plucked straight from the mafia flicks that we know and love. Because of the familiarity, there’s a strange comfort in being introduced to the host of characters in this piece. Shot with a neon-sleaze sheen by cinematographer Sean Price Williams, there’s a greasiness to the aesthetic that compliments the subject matter; it comes as no surprise to learn that Williams worked alongside Josh and Benny Safdie on their brilliant 2017 heist picture Good Time.
Giannopoulos’s paint-by-numbers script might be lacking in originality, but the lucid material is elevated by the colossal acting talent at his disposal. With his sharp, slicked-back look, Shiloh Fernandez gives an assured central performance that’s reminiscent of Joel Kinnaman’s breakthrough turn in the Easy Money series of Swedish crime films. He’s joined by mobster movie royalty in Bracco, Pastore, and Paul Sorvino who, like most involved, give little more than enjoyable cameos in their roles. After a real-life battle with throat cancer, Val Kilmer channels Marlon Brando as the don of the famiglia and although it is often a struggle to decipher exactly what he is saying through his trachea, his presence alone carries weight and menace. Perhaps the most surprising of the supporting turns is from Ewan McGregor as the well-meaning local priest Father Kelly; considering the director is currently dating McGregor’s daughter Clara, who also has a small part to play, the motives behind this A-lister casting masterstroke fall into place.
Despite being only his first effort in the director’s chair, Giannopoulos pulls the strings to asserts his cinematic influence. The Birthday Cake brings nothing new to the table but serves as a sweet homage to the gangster film genre with its generous helpings of cameo performances.