City Paper is not for tourists
The subway-station sign that welcomes Joshua Shapira (Tim Roth) back to the old neighborhood unambiguously states where Little Odessa is set: Brighton Beach, the Brooklyn neighborhood known for its large Russian-Jewish population. Writer/director James Gray, whose directorial debut this is, has roots in this community, yet he fails to conjure it convincingly. The film’s real location is hell, frozen over.
Shot during the near-arctic winter of 1994, Odessa is frigid in every regard. As dark as it is cold, the film unfolds in chiaroscuro vignettes as controlled as the emotions of Joshua, a Russian-mafia assassin whose presence in the neighborhood is, to say the least, disruptive. When not dispatching people at close range, the gunman tries to bond with his adoring teen-age brother Reuben (Edward Furlong) and to visit his dying mother Irina (Vanessa Redgrave)—contact that the Shapiras’ imperious patriarch Arkady (Maximilian Schell) has (not unreasonably) forbidden. Joshua also initiates a chilly romance with a local admirer, Alla (Moira Kelly), while ducking the local rivals who would blow him away.
Like the skinhead thug Roth played in his first film, Made in Britain, Joshua is intense and implacable. He’s not especially believable, though, and not only because his accent strays well beyond Brighton Beach. Though he’s supposed to be maintaining a low profile, he regularly pulls his gun on people who are no significant threat to him—including a maintenance worker at the Coney Island aquarium, where he and Reuben go to commune with the snakes—and risks both his own life and those of his brother and lover by lingering in the neighborhood. Rather than dismiss his religious heritage, Joshua unconvincingly transforms it into a tough-guy credo: “We’re Jews, we wander,” he tells Reuben. “Didn’t they teach you that shit in Hebrew school?”
Despite its semi-exotic locale, Odessa owes more to film school than Hebrew school. Gray sets the controls for maximum darkness, filming shots in which the only illuminated object on the entire screen is the bridge of somebody’s nose, scoring a sex scene to the melancholy clatter of distant freight trains, and drenching the proceedings in mournful Eastern European choral music. With Irina dying of cancer, Arkady trapped in a dead-end job as a newsstand operator, and Reuben perhaps fatally attracted to his brother, Joshua appears as the exterminating angel not just for his designated victims but for his family as well. Though ruthless and explosive in the mode of Scorsese’s ethnic New York gangsters, Gray’s protagonists are as much suicidal as homicidal.
J. Hoberman has called Odessa‘s methodical executions “subliminal references to Nazi terror,” but a more telling connection may be one that Gray makes himself, by sending Joshua, Reuben, and Alla to a screening of a Nightmare on Elm Street flick. As with Tarantino, the film’s killings seem rooted more in cinematic than human history. Stylistically assured but emotionally uncompelling, Odessa is a technically impressive calling card for a fledgling filmmaker. When he hands it to you, don’t recoil from those bloodstains near the fax number. They’re not real.
Near the beginning of Nine Months, Samuel (Hugh Grant) makes a proposal to his girlfriend Rebecca (Julianne Moore): that their favorite San Francisco beach be divided into children’s and adults-only sections. At this point in Grant’s first big, bad Hollywood movie, I had already formulated my own proposal: that Americans stop adapting tiresome French comedies like Neuf Mois, the source of this rigorously predictable flick. By the end of the film, Samuel had of course abandoned his idea. I had not.
Aside from making lots of money, Months will serve one other purpose. Those who wish to punish Grant for his much-publicized transgression can be assured that director Chris Columbus has already accomplished the task: The movie involves little more than shots of Grant falling down, getting bonked in the head, and falling down again, once with his pants around his ankles. (And, of course, a great deal of Grant’s patented stammering.) As if that weren’t enough, Samuel has to eat his words, sniffle as he watches an ultrasound, start wearing an earring, and bond with Tom Arnold.
A comedy of the plot-impaired absurd, Months presents Samuel as a slightly crabby, kidophobic yuppie who just happens to be a child psychologist living with a woman who teaches ballet to little girls. Their best pal is a glib, piggish, and wealthy unsuccessful artist (Jeff Goldblum) who tells Samuel that women who get pregnant without warning their mates in advance are “hateful.” That’s just what Rebecca has done, of course, and Samuel has already run his new red Porsche convertible off the road at the news.
Since he’s a psychologist with no apparent tolerance for psychology, it takes Samuel a while (about sept mois) to figure out what he should do. In the meantime, Rebecca moves in with Marty and Gail (Tom Arnold and Joan Cusack), a loud, vehemently Middle American couple who already have three kids and are expecting a fourth. They’re the sort of people who would never live in San Francisco, let alone become fast friends with Samuel and Rebecca, but that’s just what happens. Rebecca and Gail even end up in the same delivery room, where each is in labor just long enough for Samuel and Marty to have a knock-down brawl. It was around here that I started to have flashbacks to the wacky dual-labor sequence in Mickey and Maude, perhaps the worst movie Blake Edwards ever made—and that’s a distinction that should impress even Home Alone director Columbus.
Months punctuates Grant’s slapstick with bursts of intense sentimentality, as well as such completely extraneous comic business as the wish-fulfillment scene where Samuel and Marty beat up “Arnie” the dinosaur. Samuel imagines that Rebecca is a hungry female praying mantis, and Rebecca refuses to have sex on the grounds that Samuel’s penis might hit the fetus in the head and cause brain damage. (It’s enough to drive a man to—fill in your own grossly exploitative gag about Grant’s recent arrest here.) The coup de grâce is Robin Williams (the star of Columbus’ Mrs. Doubtfire) as a zany Russian-émigré obstetrician who says things like, “I have to look at your volvo” and “I should buy myself a clitoris.” Better that than Columbus’ production company should ever buy the rights to another trite French farce.