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'25th Hour'

Time's running out for characters in '25th Hour'

Friday, January 10, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Although it features an almost entirely Caucasian cast and a screenplay written by someone else, "25th Hour" bears many of the hallmarks of, to use the director's term for his movies, a Spike Lee joint.

'25th Hour'

RATING: R for strong language and some violence.

STARRING: Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson.

DIRECTOR: Spike Lee.

WEB SITE: touchstonepictures


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For one thing, the film uses Lee's beloved New York City almost as a secondary character, a presence made all the more haunting by Lee's manifest use of 9/11 symbolism -- in one scene, two characters carry on a lengthy conversation in front of a window through which Ground Zero is plainly visible.

But like so many of Lee's films, "25th Hour" displays both his filmmaking talent and his narrative limitations, a tendency that has made him one of our most interesting and frustrating directors.

The screenplay, adapted by David Benioff from his own (pre-9/11) novel, centers on Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), the son of a retired fireman (Brian Cox) who now runs a bar on Staten Island. Monty has a pretty girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), but he won't be seeing her for a while. He's been sentenced to seven years in prison on a drugs charge.

The movie shows us his last day of freedom. How does he spend it? He contemplates his past, the mistakes he's made. He huddles with his father, who tries to blame himself. He tries to figure out who squealed on him and fears it might have been Naturelle, although she doesn't seem to have a motive.

And he grimly attends a farewell party with his friends -- Frank (Barry Pepper), the kind of brash Wall Street broker who flaunts company rules and likes to ride on the edge, and Jakob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who hates himself for being born rich and leads a lonely life teaching for peanuts at a private school, where one of his students (Anna Paquin) makes a play for him.

For much of its length, the movie drifts forward in a contemplative funk -- the way we might expect someone to feel when he has come to terms with the fact that life as he knows it is about to end and be replaced with uncertainty and even danger.

That's where the 9/11 references come in, although I suspect New Yorkers will make more of an instinctual connection to their use in the film than will those of us from outside the five boroughs.

"25th Hour" is really more of a mood piece than a story. I'm not sure it even qualifies as a character study because Monty Brogan isn't in a position to discover anything new about himself at this point, although Norton is such a good actor that he compels our attention anyhow.

It turns out Frank and Jakob are the ones re-evaluating their lives in the context of Monty's impending departure. They're the ones discussing it while overlooking Ground Zero. It seems we see as much of them as we do of Monty, and after a while the movie starts to drag -- Lee is unfortunately given to excess sprawl -- while we wait for something to happen. That's all Frank and Jakob are doing, waiting to see what happens next.

But they -- and we -- haven't realized all the possibilities. In a brilliant sequence that ends the film, Monty's dad spells out some alternate scenarios that are tantalizing in their hopefulness. The dream of what could be created, of the lives that may be engendered or enriched, of the redemption that might be attained, is almost tearfully stirring. Cox's recitation whisks us along on a reverie that serves as counterpoint to the film's predominantly gloomy tone.

The movie's other stunning scene places Monty in front of a mirror, where he unleashes a tirade of invective against New York and virtually every ethnic, eccentric and economic group residing therein.

The movie's title refers to the first hour of the new dawn, the beginning of whatever comes next. "25th Hour" doesn't pretend to know the answer any more than the rest of us could. It provides some intriguing choices. But first we must get over the hangover of the night before. Such is the film's somewhat oblique message.

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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