25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002)
[originally posted 17Jan2003]
Spike Lee made three of the defining films of the 1980s, She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze, and Do the Right Thing. Then his career seemed to jump the shark; the politics got in the way of the art (a line he trod in the last two of the abovementioned films, to be sure, but without crossing it), and the downward slide began, culminating in the overblown, thoroughly unwatchable Summer of Sam. Given the decline of Lee’s career, having him pitted against the finest actor in America today, Ed Norton, filled me with something akin to dread. Norton is a brilliant actor, turning everything he touches at least to fool’s gold; three of the last four films he’s made, he’s been the only thing about them worth watching. I’ll see anything Ed Norton is in, and seeing that the redoubtable Jon Kilik (Before Night Falls) was listed as producer on this gave me some hope that Spike Lee was going to return to the good old days, when the art was for art’s sake, the politics were kept in check and grew out of the characters rather than vice versa, and the best actors of the generation turned in the best performances of their careers for the man working the magic behind the camera.
Did he make it? Hard to say. This is easily Spike Lee’s best film since 1989. That, however, is not saying much.
Montgomery Brogan (Norton) is an ex-narcotics dealer on his last day before going to prison for seven years after the police were tipped off to where he hides the drugs and money. Figuring out who tipped him off becomes the mystery subplot, but the basic premise of the movie is that two of his childhood friends, wall-street shark Frank (Barry Pepper of The Green Mile and—erk—Battlefield Earth) and English teacher Jakob (Philip Seymour Hoffman, from Red Dragon), are taking Brogan out for their last night on the town for a very long time. The other main subplot going through the film is Jakob’s obsession with one of his students, Mary d’Annunzio (Anna Paquin, sporting some of the most finely-adorned stomach muscles on the planet throughout the movie), whom the three of them meet by chance during their evening. Other characters move through the film at times, including Brogan’s wife (Men in Black II’s Rosario Dawson) and father (Brian Cox, the finest casting move made in the film—-did anyone else catch the irony there?).
The film is chock full of beautiful scenes. Those with Norton and Cox are probably the best in the film; Cox, when he’s on his game, can tear a viewer’s heart out with his plaintiveness, and he does so here in a role that has the potential to land him his first, and long overdue, Oscar nomination. Other great pieces of dialogue float throughout. Many of them involve Barry Pepper, whose character flits through personality traits like Wall Street moves shares; one moment he’s offering Norton a shoulder to cry on, the next he’s excoriating Norton while talking to Hoffman from his penthouse apartment overlooking ground zero.
And here we come to the film’s biggest failing, and the one upon which the minor ones rest. Much of the movie’s screen time makes it seem like Lee’s main goal here was to spend as much time as possible showing his viewers scenes of New York recovering from 9/11, from the painfully sappy opening credits montage to the minutes after the aforementioned scene between Pepper and Hoffman occurs, as Hoffman stares out the window at cranes removing I-beams from the wreckage of the twin towers.
All of this time could have been spent in character development and filling in missing pieces. And very well should have been. There are a whole lot of fine performances in this movie, but they don’t add up to much; we’re handed episodic pieces of a puzzle, but what makes them connect is missing from the box. For example, Jakob’s obsession with Mary; we know it exists, there’s some buildup to the climax of that particular plot thread, the climax occurs. It’s obvious there’s much more to that story to be told, but it drops from the film, never to be mentioned again. Also, when the narc’s identity is finally revealed, the only way to make it work logically is because you can piece together the red herrings; unlike most herring-filled mysteries, the clues as to the narc’s identity are absent from the first three quarters of the film. Non-mystery-fans will probably let this pass uncommented, but for those of us who outgrew the Agatha Christie “here’s who the killer is… and I’ll tell you why” method of mystery ending long ago, there’s going to be a sour taste in the mouth.
That said, it’s not a reason to stay away. There isn’t a single bad performance in the film. If you can get past the calculated smarminess of the New York City cinematography and concentrate on the acting, there’s much to be relished here. Terence Blanchard’s haunting score may be his finest since 1994’s The Inkwell, and those who loved Do the Right Thing will have fond memories raised by a certain hate-filled misanthropic monologue Norton’s mirrored reflection addresses to him in one of the film’s most memorable scenes; unlike the vitriolic rapid-fire racist delivery of the 1989 scene, however, Norton’s rant is almost poetic in its dissection of many of New York City’s stereotypes. (One of the final scenes in the film recalls this rant, and it is a powerful piece of filmmaking, to be sure.) Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman have long been neglected by the Hollywood machine, despite showing awe-inspiring talent on a fairly regular basis; their performances here will hopefully change that. Be prepared to be unsatisfied by some loose ends, but the performances herein are well worth the trouble. ** ½