There’s a fine line between mocking obnoxious bro behavior and celebrating it, and writer-director Casey Tebo’s “Happy Birthday” too often falls on the wrong side of the divide. Though well-acted and stylish, this meta-grindhouse exercise strains under its own self-satisfied cleverness.
Matt Bush stars as Brady Baxter, a nebbishy Hollywood assistant who takes an impromptu birthday trip to Mexico with his rich buddy Tommy (Riley Litman). Their planned epic debauchery gets scuttled when they meet two women (Britne Oldford and Vanessa Lengies) who kidnap and torture them, claiming to be working for a drug lord.
For a while, “Happy Birthday” has some fun with its sucker-punch, as Brady and Tommy come to regret wanting to experience the gamier side of a foreign country. But while the movie is skewering these dudes’ preconceived notions of Mexicans, women and the criminal underworld, it’s indulging in its own stereotypes about all three.
Tebo brings some admirable ambition to this microbudget project, adding in flashy camera moves, digressive stories-within-stories, and a couple more major plot twists. And it helps that he has such a strong young cast, supplemented with character turns by Erik Palladino as a Tex-Mex cowboy and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler as a shaman.
But from the overwritten, pop-culture-reference-laden dialogue to the incessant attempts to be shocking, “Happy Birthday” tries way too hard. For a movie that doesn’t have much to say, it sure never stops jabbering.
MPAA rating: R, for sexual content, language throughout, some nudity, drug use and violence
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Playing: Arena Cinema, Hollywood