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(2004) ** R
100 min. New Line Cinema. Director: Shawn Levy. Cast: Steve Martin, Kevin Kline, Jean Reno, Emily Mortimer, Henry Czerny.

Perhaps you've heard of Birth, now notorious as the movie in which Nicole Kidman's widow shares a tub (and a kiss) with a ten-year-old boy claiming to be her late husband. Unfortunately for director Jonathan Glazer, who came onto the scene with 2001's Sexy Beast, the most resonant line in the picture comes when Kidman tells young actor Cameron Bright, "You make no sense."

The film's bravura opening depicts a shadowy figure, set against a snow-white Central Park, as he runs away from the camera. The framing, movement, music, and patience all suggest Kubrick, and the film's upscale, amber-bathed settings and leading lady likewise recall Eyes Wide Shut. But Birth is overdressed with nowhere to go. The running man is almost entirely as remote at film's end as he is mysterious at its beginning, and the same can be said for Kidman's puzzling Anna and Bright's creepy-for-the-sake-of creepy Sean (you may know Bright from pulling the same creepy trick in Godsend).

Birth tells a variation on a story which has long fascinated Hollywood, and was filmed by the French as The Return of Martin Guerre. Only recently, Dylan Kidd's P.S. played out the same "is he or isn't he who he seems to be?" plot familiar to viewers of Sommersby and other films. The ten-year-old Sean shows up in Anna's apartment just as he she is celebrating her engagement (to loutish Danny Huston) after ten years of mourning for her husband Sean. Since the audience doesn't know Anna's late husband, we must take Anna's obsessive love for him at face value: what a wonderful marriage it must have been! But the fissures eventually revealed in the plot turn Anna's apparent love into insensibility.

Anyway, young Sean tenaciously asserts his identity and his love for Anna, which provides fodder for Lauren Bacall, as Anna's mother, to drip droll one-liners, and for Huston to break the film's thick ice with an amusing if entirely implausible attack on the child. Peter Stormare and Anne Heche play key roles as one-time close friends of Sean and Anna, but no one in the film comes across as a flesh-and-blood character.

To assume that plot replaces character would be a mistake. What's left is style, low-key to a fault, but Birth's often striking images--like an extreme close-up on Kidman's distraught thought process at an opera or a slow zoom on a barren tree--might as well be a flip-book for all the weight they carry. Birth is either a film about reincarnation or about a boy messing around in the world of adults and in over his head, but the screenwriters--Glazer, Jean-Claude Carrière (whose illustrious credits include, huh, Le Retour de Martin Guerre), and Milo Addica (Monster's Ball)--take neither prospect seriously enough to keep it real.

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