25th Hour

January, 2003, Drama

Directed by:Spike Lee

Starring:Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Brian Cox, and Anna Paquin

This year's holiday films have featured some outstanding performances; Daniel Day-Lewis's corrosive villainy in "Gangs of New York", Christopher Walken's appealing Babbit-like businessman in "Catch Me If You Can", Adrian Brody's anguished Jewish artist in "The Pianist" to name but three. Yet wonderful acting alone does not a first-rate movie make, as this latest effort from Spike Lee demonstrates. This time blame can be placed squarely on screenwriter David Benioff, who adapted this treatment of his own novel.

The film's premise is simplicity itself; a 30-ish New Yorker surveys the wreckage of his life on his last day of freedom before beginning a 7-year jail term for drug dealing. Benioff's slender book, (his first) bristled with sharp dialogue as it detailed the mostly nocturnal wanderings of Monty Brogan, a Peck's Bad Boy from the Big Apple whose career as a small time heroin pusher is about to be interrupted by a serious stretch of prison time for failing to give up the names of his suppliers. Benioff captured the feel of the city and Brogan's belated examination of the path that brought him to the dead-end of a life chosen almost by accident. Despite his occupation, Brogan is both credible and sympathetic because he accepts responsibility for his actions and enjoys important relationships with appealing colleagues, especially his two best friends from high school. These ancillary characters are also fully developed in Benioff's story, giving his noir-ish study of an American/Irish lowlife real flavor. 

The book is all mood and ambiance; little happens during Brody's last day as a free citizen because the author's principal concern remains cleverly focused on whether, as he contemplates the years ahead of him, Brody will take his medicine and turn himself in, or disappear into an unknown netherworld west of the Hudson. Readers are then treated to a contemporary version of the old "Lady or the Tiger" literary device, deciding for themselves which course of action he'll finally choose.

Unfortunately, Lee and Benioff oversimplify the movie version of this tale, giving us a protagonist still striving to discover who gave him up to the police and worrying--unconvincingly--how he'll survive the sexual predators he'll encounter behind those prison walls. These plot devices present some needed dramatic tension and clarify the movie's action, but they detract from Brody's self-examination of his motives and produce a climatic beating as implausible as it is unnecessary. 

But "Hour" is not without its compensations; as Brody, Ed Norton delivers another superbly credible performance, complimented perfectly by those of Barry Pepper

 as his loyal but craven Wall Street boyhood chum and Philip Seymour Hoffman who injects his typical quiet intensity into the role of Brody's other stalwart friend, now a repressed high school teacher. It's to Benioff's credit that he gives these two characters the same good lines and careful development allotted to Brody, although in doing so, he causes digressions in the storyline that become increasingly distracting.

Lee's directorial work is difficult to categorize; it ranges from acerbic racial commentary, ("She's Gotta Have It", "Do The Right Thing") to the biographical "Malcom X". In films like "Clockers" and "Summer of Sam", he demonstrated a ready grasp of the venality inherent in petty criminals and the tensions they often bring to working-class urban life. Perhaps his greatest skill lies in combining visceral dialogue with an almost painterly use of lighting, film stock and camera; the results often have the unnerving effect of putting the audience inside his character's heads. That talent's much in evidence here, but with little effect; having decided to simplify the novel's plot, Lee periodically interrupts the action to present ponderous commentary on the dangerous allure of crime in urban America. In one especially theatrical scene, Brody rants to his own image in a barroom mirror about all the city's minorities and what he finds most detestable in them while the camera cuts between this soliloquy and the faces of those Brody's castigating with his particular brand of self-loathing. It's a powerful set piece, but completely out of keeping with the character presenting it. And the director's repeated references to the events of 9/11 are both irrelevant to his story line and an inaccurate overlay to the time period in which the book itself was originally set. The final dream sequence, (in which Brody imagines what might have come of his life if only he could escape the consequences of his past) is so out of character with what's come before that it belongs in another movie altogether.

Lee has complained that sparse commercial acceptance of his work makes it hard to line up financing for new projects, and I suspect this film will continue that sad state of affairs; with all his considerable gifts for storytelling, Lee's appetite for sociological polemics keeps audiences at bay. That's too bad; there aren't enough black directors with his talent and passion for presenting tough issues, and if we lose both his voice and vision, we'll be the worse for it.   


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