Think of Spike Lee and you’ll probably think of a film he made in his fertile period of 1988-1992: “Do The Right Thing,” “Jungle Fever,” “Mo’ Better Blues” or “Malcolm X.” Odds are you won’t be quick to recall many of his spotty works in the decade since, misfires like “Girl 6,” “Crooklyn,” “Get on the Bus” or “He Got Game,” with the one exception being “Summer of Sam.” That one was an anomaly for Lee, since he worked with an outside script and an exclusively white-boy cast, but nevertheless delivered a sharply observed portrait of NYC in the late ’70s and the small-minded prejudice of boyz in the boroughs.
Ironically enough, “25th Hour” — Lee’s latest, and probably his best work in a decade, but for “Summer” — also features a bunch of white boys in the leads, and a screenplay by author David Benioff, which Lee largely refrained from tampering with. Draw your own conclusions if you must, but my impression is that Lee all too often lets didacticism get in the way of storytelling in his own scripts, and working with a white cast allows him to dodge the racial issues, which all so often balloon into the aforementioned didacticism. (Think “Bamboozled,” or “Get on the Bus.”)
Lee’s always had a good eye for actors, and he’s at his best when he’s interested in characters, not the socio-political point they’re supposed to represent. That’s certainly true of “25th Hour,” which features an impressive ensemble cast — Edward Norton (“Fight Club”), Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Happiness,” “Boogie Nights”) and Barry Pepper (“Saving Private Ryan”) — and a story that largely remains focused on the dynamics between them.
Norton plays Montgomery Brogan, a convicted Brooklyn drug dealer out on bail, but facing a seven-year jail term. Monty’s got one last day of freedom, to say goodbye to his friends and family, and to try to figure out who fingered him. As his burly, Russian mafia friend, Kostya (Tony Siragusa), tells him, “Leesen, before you leave — you should know!” Kostya has a feeling that Monty’s live-in girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson, the one good thing to come out of “Kids”), ratted him out, but Monty can’t believe that. Well, more accurately, he tries his hardest not to, but doubts keep bubbling up.
After visiting his dad’s neighborhood bar and his old school (a preppy private school, which he was expelled from for fighting), Monty plans one last night out with Naturelle and his old friends, Jacob (Hoffman), a high-school teacher obsessed with his Lolita-esque student Mary (Anna Paquin), and Frank (Pepper), an abrasive Wall Street trader who thinks he’s God’s gift to women. The dynamic between these unlikely friends — Irish Catholic, Jewish and Puerto Rican, blue-collar and upper-class — highlights the social mobility and flux within New York more so than any Lee film since “Jungle Fever.” (Which actually ends up emphasizing the rigidity of race by its final act.)
Monty and friends head off to a trendy nightclub run by the Russian mob. There, Jacob runs into Mary, who’s flying on E, and quickly tags along to get in on the guest list; Frank gets a bit too drunk and confronts Naturelle; and Monty has one last tense meeting with Uncle Nikolai (Levani Outchaneichvili), who’s also trying to determine whether anyone’s ratted him out.
Monty’s got bigger problems on his mind, though; namely that a seven-year stretch in a federal prison isn’t just seven years lost. For a good-looking guy who isn’t built like an SUV, it means seven years of anal rape and of having all his teeth knocked out of his head so he can’t bite when other convicts violate his mouth. It’s a point Lee underlines, the great unspoken nonsecret that jail time in the United States is indeed a cruel and unusual punishment. The idea of making his dealer white, and having him receive a harsh mandatory sentence for a first-time, nonviolent offense, must also have appealed to the director; it’s a role reversal of usual U.S. movie conventions (drug dealer equals black/Latino), and it also forces white audiences to examine the effects of Draconian drug sentencing laws that are usually applauded when those sentenced are urban African-Americans.
“25th Hour” works best when it sticks to the relationships between its characters, and its well-developed theme of taking responsibility: Brian Cox (“Adaptation”) agonizes over whether he let his son down by not speaking up earlier; Frank derides Jacob’s sympathy for Monty, saying, “I love the guy, but he deserves it”; Jacob — a classic Philip Seymour Hoffman nebbish — agonizes about what to do with Mary: to do what he wants, or to do the right thing.
Less effective are Lee’s attempts to shroud the whole story in the dust of the Two Towers. Yes, we all know that after 9/11 “everything changed” for New Yorkers, but Lee’s insertion of shots of Ground Zero and the pillars of blue light projected into the NYC skyline has all the grace of a Schwarzenegger grope. None of the characters in “25th Hour” are affected directly in any way by the WTC collapse, but Lee takes this background hum and places it front and center, ramming it home with a horribly portentous soundtrack by Terence Blanchard. Overall, a cheap attempt at pathos and relevancy.
This is typical of Lee’s weaknesses: a tendency to pontificate and to throw in whatever’s on his mind regardless of whether it has much to do with the film at hand. There’s a 9/11 New York movie to be made someday, but this sure ain’t it. As a tragedy, “25th Hour” works perfectly on a personal level; one can only regret Lee didn’t leave it at that.
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