"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." So Tolstoy opens "Anna Karenina." And the reason the Shapira family is unhappy is that Arkady Shapira read all of the same author's "War and Peace" to his son Joshua when the boy was only 3 years old.
James Gray's new film, "Little Odessa," suggests that Arkady should have spent more time listening to his boys.
"Little Odessa," which opens at the Charles today, is as brilliantly executed as its subject matter is unhappy. The Shapiras are Russian-Jewish emigres living in Brooklyn's Brighton Beach. This is not the Jewish-American Brighton Beach of a Neil Simon play, but a much darker, Russian place. It is called "Little Odessa" not only because so many of its inhabitants hail from that seaside city in Ukraine, but also because Odessa was the place where the Jews ran the rackets as brilliantly as the Georgians ran them in Tbilisi or the Sicilians in Palermo.
Joshua Shapira was indeed a promising boy -- he played Mozart as a child. As a young man in the United States, however, his talents have turned in another direction. He is a cold-eyed hit man for the organizatsya, the Russian Mafia. His talents have estranged his father (Maximilian Schell), who hates him, and saddened his dying mother, Irina (Vanessa Redgrave), who still hopes for his redemption, as well as his teen-age brother, Reuben (Edward Furlong), who continues to adore him.
Josh's murder years before of the son of an organizatsya chieftain led to his banishment from Little Odessa. But a new assignment makes him return to Brighton Beach one last time. The result is unfortunate -- for Arkady, who has been making the same mistakes with Reuben that he made with Josh; for Reuben, who is well on the way to becoming a con man (he has missed school for almost two months without letting on to his family); and for Josh himself.
This is a brilliantly acted movie. Roth is an exceptionally versatile actor, but his Josh may surpass previous achievements. The British actor's accent, for example, is perfect Russian- inflected Jewish Brooklynese. And his tortured eyes, speech and physical expressions convey the anguish of a man who has repressed, but not erased, his essential decency. The other performances -- Schell's angry Arkady, Redgrave's majestic Irina, Furlong's devoted Reuben and Moira Kelly's poignant Alla, who can't help but find herself attracted to Josh -- nearly match Roth's.
This film creates a claustrophobic world in which there seems no escape from the cycle of viciousness. That is a quality captured by the dark cinematography: the reduced circumstances of Arkady's newsstand beneath the deafening "El"; the darkness under the boardwalk where Josh and Reuben furtively meet; the narrow railroad apartments in which people cannot comfortably walk past each other; and the garbage dump's incinerators, chain-smoking through the night, which dispose of Josh's victims.
The 25-year-old Gray's affecting "Little Odessa" may depress you, but it is so superbly executed that's it's likely to leave you exhilarated as well.
Starring Tim Roth, Edward Furlong, Maximilian Schell and Vanessa Redgrave
Directed by James Gray
Released by Fine Line Features
Rated R (sexual situations, violence)