J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Happy Birthday: Welcome to Mexicali, Drunken Gringos

Reportedly, Mexicali is surprisingly peaceful for a large Mexican border town. Some speculate this is because the Sinaloa Cartel has taken over lock, stock, and smoking barrel. Regardless, two bros are determined to have an anecdote-worthy adventure in debauchery there. They might just get their wish if they survive their abduction in Casey Tebo’s Happy Birthday (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Brady is not really inclined to spend his birthday drinking and drugging through Mexicali, but when he discovers his girlfriend has cheated on him, he agrees to the plans of his Maxim magazine-brained best bud Tommy. The cock fights and peyote really aren’t his bag, but things perk up when they start hanging with Katie and Lucia. Unfortunately, instead of party girls, they are lures for the kidnapping-extortion racket run by the local drug lord. Suddenly, the trip isn’t fun anymore, especially for Brady, who rather inconveniently happens to be an orphan with no rich parents to pay his ransom.

Arguably, the smartest bits in the film convey how Brady’s experiences in foster care gave him the survival skills necessary to endure and possibly turn the tables. On the other hand, the New Age peyote dealer (played by a shamelessly hammy Steven Tyler) and the sundry dodgy fixers and dubious tour guides are painfully shticky. Frankly, many of the stereotype stock characters in Birthday look and sound like they should be delivering taco salad to Donald Trump.

Still, Matt Bush’s Brady exhibits appealingly geeky fortitude during the second act, where the film prematurely peaks. Britne Oldford (from Syfy’s Hunters) also makes a dynamite femme fatale as Lucia. As the quiet lure, Vanessa Lengies is attractive, but not much else, yet that is rather refreshing compared to Riley Litman’s abrasively annoying Ugly American routine as the entitled Tommy.

Although it goes out of its way to sound hip and progressive, Tebo’s screenplay rather ironically makes a convincing case for the border wall Trump apparently no longer believes in. There are flashes of gritty inspiration here and there, but any reasonably intuitive viewer can see the big twists coming from a mile away. Neither distinctive or offensive enough to make a strong impression, Happy Birthday opens this Friday (9/9) in New York, at the Cinema Village.