BRIGHTON BEACH MISERIES

As Little Odessa has a topnotch cast and promising subject matter, there probably will be a few art-house masochists willing to convince themselves that it's good. But it's about as boring a movie as I've seen all year. It's set among the Russian-Jewish gangsters in the title community in Brooklyn's Brighton Beach, and the central character is a hit man played by Tim Roth, whose M.O. is to walk right up to his victims and pop a bullet into their skulls. After watching about half of Little Odessa, I started wishing he would walk up to me.

Roth, who's been living on the West Coast, returns home to Brooklyn on orders from his boss. While there, he visits his family: kid brother (Edward Furlong), dour father (Maximilian Schell) and mother (Vanessa Redgrave, in yet another dying-invalid part), who has a brain tumor. Kid brother is glad to see Roth, but the old man curses him and orders him out of the house. In case we've missed the subtle hint that this spells doom, we're shown bleak, snow-swept streets. Lots of them.

The debuting director is a twentysomething named James Gray and, in some ways, his work is actually impressive. There are no obvious blunders in the making of the film--the clean, stark compositions are occasionally beautiful--and no one can fault Gray for his taste in actors, only for the use to which he puts them. With the exception of Moira Kelly, who brings some prickly life to the unrewarding role of a lonely neighborhood spinster (yeah, right) in whom Roth takes an interest, nobody shows any life. Gray seems to think that having his actors do nothing but mumble at each other will generate melancholy Russian angst, but it generates tedium.

The worst mumbler, surprisingly, is Schell, who has probably never given a more charmless performance. He's supposed to be an abusive old SOB--as far as I could tell, Gray wanted me to see that it was the bastardly Schell that made his son a killer--but if an SOB is all he is, then what's the point of the story? That it sucks to have a bad father? That having a bad father is a license to kill?

When Schell tells his mistress (Natasha Andreichenko)--a stunning blonde about 30 years his junior, like all middle-aged newsstand owners have--how he used to read his kids Crime and Punishment when they were 6, you think, yes, this film could be the work of someone who had Dostoevski for his childhood bedtime stories. And he's still pissed about it, and he wants everyone to suffer for it.

 
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