'Happy Birthday': Film Review

Happy Birthday Still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Momentum Pictures

Two American tourists fall victim to Mexican kidnappers in Casey Tebo's darkly comic thriller.

If Mexico wasn't already feeling resentful enough thanks to Donald Trump, now the country has Casey Tebo's debut feature to complain about. A bizarre mixture of black comedy and horror/suspense, Happy Birthday is a juvenile effort that at least has the decency to make its American and Mexican characters look equally bad.

The storyline involves best friends Brady (Matt Bush) and Tommy (Riley Litman), who are struggling to make it in the movie business. When Brady discovers that his girlfriend has been cheating on him, Tommy offers to take his depressed buddy on a birthday trip to the border town of Mexicali so he can drown his sorrows in booze, drugs and prostitutes.

Shortly after arriving, the duo is taken under the wing of two "tour guides" — the sleazy "Texican" (Erik Palladino) and his hulking sidekick "El Caballo" (Matt Willig). For a mere $500, they offer them protection and an introduction to the town's sleazier attractions, including a cockfight. But things go awry when the two friends engage in an illicit encounter with Katie (Vanessa Lengies) and Lucia (Britne Oldford) and, foolishly, allow themselves to be handcuffed. It turns out that the two women are working for the local drug cartel whose side business is kidnapping young American tourists and hitting their parents up for ransom. Unfortunately for Brady, he's an orphan. One of the consequences is that Brady is tortured with chickens (hard to imagine, but you'll have to take my word for it).

In addition to peppering its straightforward tale with such outlandish touches, Happy Birthday ladles out the sort of meta, pop-culture commentary popularized by the likes of Quentin Tarantino (although even he would find the depiction of the backstory of fearsome cartel "El Gato" over-the-top baroque). The characters engage in lengthy discussions about the Gremlins and Rocky films, as well as a discourse on the oeuvre of director Paul Thomas Anderson.

As for the acting, all you need to know about the general caliber is that Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, playing a drug-dealing shaman, offers one of the film's more restrained performances. And, in terms of plotting, the writer/director throws in not one, but two surprise twists at the conclusion. Turns out that's at least two too many.

Production: Darko Entertainment

Distributor: Momentum Pictures

Cast: Matt Bush, Britne Oldford, Vanessa Lengies, Riley Litman, Steven Tyler, Erik Palladino, Matt Willig, Robert Miano, Sean McKittrick, Robert Deleo

Director/screenwriter: Casey Tebo

Producers: Sean McKittrick, Edward Hamm Jr.

Executive producers: Bruce Quarto, M. Steve McKee, Mark Namtil

Director of photography: Terrence F. Hayes

Production designer: Brenan O'Conner

Editor: Evan Schiff

Costume designer: Sarah De SaRego

Composer: Robert DeLeo

Rated R, 90 minutes