The Birthday Cake review – did Val Kilmer get an offer he couldn’t refuse?

Writer-director-composer Jimmy Giannopoulos doesn’t have a lot of previous credits to his name, and this gangster drama seems to be his first feature. But he or his producers are either extremely persuasive or very well connected because, given its meandering script and absurdly grand guignol ending, it’s astonishing that The Birthday Cake could attract such a starry cast. Admittedly lead actor Shiloh Fernandez, who plays son-of-a-dead-gangster Gio, isn’t yet a household name but within minutes his character is meeting Ewan McGregor playing a priest who inexplicably also narrates the story (his daughter Clara McGregor is a producer here and has a small role herself), while Lorraine Bracco features for an only slightly longer time as Gio’s widowed mother, and baker of the birthday cake of the title.

Gio’s motivation, as they say in acting classes, is to take this cake across Brooklyn for an annual get-together of his father’s former mafia cronies to remember the dead man. Along the way, he meets an assortment of character actors, some of them like Bracco familiar faces from Martin Scorsese movies or The Sopranos, such as Vincent Pastore and Paul Sorvino. Even Donald Trump’s ex-wife, Marla Maples, gets a scene. The big boss at the end turns out, in an example of baffling but sure-why-not casting, to be Val Kilmer. And then revenge-tragedy-style climax comes and it’s all over very quickly, with not a lot revealed or learned by anyone.

Nevertheless, odd though the film is and full of peculiar needle drops showcasing classic tunes that don’t especially fit the action, the whole thing looks pretty good thanks to cinematographer Sean Price Williams, who shot cool indie flicks White Girl and Her Smell as well as the Safdie brothers’ Good Time, which this rather resembles in terms of milieu. Williams clearly has a real feel for New York City at night, with its wet pavements reflecting bodega signs and dodgy, luridly lit nightclubs.

• The Birthday Cake is released on 16 July in cinemas and on digital platforms.