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25th Hour Should Be Lee’s Last

Good Character Sketches at Expense of Storytelling

By Jed Horne

Staff Writer

25th Hour

Written by David Benioff

Directed by Spike Lee

Starring Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson,

Anna Paquin, and Brian Cox

Rated R

Spike Lee might be just about the biggest fraud in the movie industry. Apart from celebrity appearances at Knicks games and the occasional self-righteous racial commentary, it’s hard to say exactly how he earned his reputation as an important filmmaker.

Sure, She’s Gotta Have It and Do the Right Thing were good movies, but you’d think that twelve years later he’d figure out how to tell a story rather than just sketch characters. His latest “joint,” 25th Hour, is no exception. It’s a thoughtful, interesting premise given to talented actors who can’t make themselves heard over the cacophony of a nonexistent plot and garbled political statements.

Edward Norton stars as Monty Brogan, an ex-drug dealer who gets busted on the day he’s ready to give up his past life. Left with twenty-four hours before a certain jail sentence, he has a tough agenda: straighten things with his friends and enemies, and of course discover who sold him out.

As other critics have noted, the film’s most striking characteristic is its backdrop post-9/11 New York City. Its plot is constructed as a loose montage of typical New York characters. Monty’s two best friends are an investment banker and a Jewish trust-fund kid who teaches prep school. His father owns an Irish pub, and his girlfriend is Puerto Rican. Who turned Monty in? Can he settle old scores?

The problem with 25th Hour, and Spike Lee joints in general, is the absence of a story. The closest parallel is Lee’s 1999 movie Summer of Sam, a film about an equally weird moment in New York City’s history. With an impressionistic approach to storytelling no less ambitious than that of 25th Hour, Summer of Sam falls equally flat when a plot fails to materialize after an hour and a half.

Thanks to an accomplished cadre of actors, however, this film isn’t quite as bad as Summer of Sam. Edward Norton turns a typically impressive performance (although just about anyone would be less annoying than John Leguizamo’s character in Summer of Sam). Phillip Seymour Hoffman, while typecast in his role as the overweight school teacher, is one of my favorite actors. Monty’s dad is played by Brian Cox, who should have won an Oscar for his role in last year’s L.I.E. and lends an air of sobriety to every movie he’s ever been in.

Also to Lee’s credit, the September 11th aspect of the plot, which could have proved irritating, was done reasonably well. It provided, for me at least, the first time I could look at America’s reaction to the attacks with anything other than detached wonder and occasional disgust. Though it was perhaps a trifle manipulative, the film has at least changed that I look at Pakistani cab drivers waving American flags.

But, like much of the disjointed grief that resulted on that morning, 25th Hour is hard to put together in a meaningful way. As an homage to New York City, it succeeds. But homages are not very interesting, or original. Beyond that, it’s hard to tell exactly what the movie was aiming for.

All the elements are there. The actors are great. The plot has promise. The setting is strange (and immediate) enough. It’s just too bad that Spike Lee can’t harvest all that creative energy and tell a story for once.