Edward Furlong and Tim Roth in Little Odessa (1994)


(director/writer: James Gray; cinematographer: Tom Richmond; editor: Dorian Harris; music: Dana Sano; cast: Tim Roth (Joshua Shapira), Edward Furlong (Reuben Shapira), Vanessa Redgrave (Irina Shapira), Maximilian Schell (Arkady Shapira), Mina Bern (Grandma Tsilya), Moira Kelly (Alla Shustervich), Paul Guilfoyle (Boris), Natalya Andreichenko (Natasha), David Vadim (Sasha); Runtime: 98; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Paul Webster; Fine Line Features; 1994)
“Desperately trying to say something complex, it only manages to look as if it said something that mattered.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A somber, dark moody film that is both a family drama and a hit man movie–take your pick. Writer-director James Gray is the 25-year-old in his feature film debut, whose sluggish spare film is not without some cheap violent thrills and penetrating atmospheric scenes. It tries its hand at offering an American tragedy built around a dysfunctional Russian Jewish emigre family living in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, where the despondent heavy-handed abusive father Arkady Shapira (Maximilian Schell) is resigned to the fact that he’s an educated man reduced to running a newsstand because he’s economically strapped and having raised two troubled sons, a twentysomething son he hates named Joshua (Tim Roth ), a hardened hit man for the Russian mob, and his teenage son he still holds out some hope for named Reuben (Edward Furlong), a high school truant who idolizes his older brother. Arkady’s wife Irina (Vanessa Redgrave) is on her death bed with a brain tumor, who gets a chance to showoff her Russian accent when she meets with her two sons before her demise. Also living with the family is the 80-year-old grandma (Mina Bern).

Joshua is displeased to learn his boss orders him back to his childhood haunts to rub out an Iranian jeweler. The hit man was exiled by his father when he learned how his son earns a living. Trying to be discreet in his return home, nevertheless Joshua is spotted by one of his kid brother’s acquaintances and meets with the affable Reuben. Also getting in touch with Joshua is the 22-year-old Alla (Moira Kelly), his former girlfriend he left behind when he split for Manhattan. The two pick up where they left off, though Joshua is not the peppy type and their romance is as heavy going as the rest of the film.

The film tries to make Joshua a tragic figure, a cold-blooded killer who is capable of loving his mom, brother and girlfriend, who even if he’s a bad dude he still has some human feelings; but that attempt never passes muster except as something old lifted from the world of film noir. That Tim Roth makes his character compelling, speaks volumes of his enormous talent. Furlong also excels as an innocent we can feel sorry for, who keeps showing up in the wrong place.

There’s an awkward closing scene in which a furnace is used to cremate an innocent boy who died in the streets of Brighton Beach, which is a horrible reminder of the Holocaust. The only thing is that this film didn’t earn the right to go there. Desperately trying to say something complex, it only manages to look as if it said something that mattered.