25th Hour (2002 ***
Directed by Spike Lee. Written by David Benioff, based on his novel. Photography, Rodrigo Prieto. Editing, Barry Alexander Brown. Production design, James Chinlund. Music, Terence Blanchard. Producers, Spike Lee, Jon Kilik, Tobey Maguire, Julia Chasman. Cast: Edward Norton (Monty Brogan), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Jacob Elinsky), Barry Pepper (Francis Xavier Slaughtery), Rosario Dawson (Naturelle Riviera), Anna Paquin (Mary D'Annuzio), Brian Cox (James Brogan), Tony Siragusa (Kostya Novotny), et al. A Touchstone Pictures release. 130 minutes. R (violence, drugs, sex)
A puzzlement of a movie, a sort of film that falls somewhat in the "noir" category. But not "noir" in the sense of black actors since the main characters are predominantly white.
The movie centers on Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), an urbane and basically kind fellow (as pointedly shown in the prologue when he rescues and adopts a gravely wounded dog.) The plot's problem is that nice Monty (who at times looks like a scholar) is also a drug dealer. An interesting departure from the overwhelmingly common depiction of dealers as scum.
Monty's girlfriend is played by the dark-skinned actress Rosario Dawson who answers to the unnatural movie name of Naturelle. (OK, it's not as weird as "Latrina," a young woman I once talked to.) Naturelle hails from Puerto Rico. She is a beauty. In reality, New York-born Ms. Dawson is of Cuban, Native American, African American, Irish, and Puerto Rican descent.
Monty and Naturelle make a potentially fascinating, handsome couple. I wish their relationship had been further developed.
Monty has a loving dad (Brian Cox) and two best friends: the Jewish Jacob Elinsky (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who is an awkward, personally insecure literature teacher in a prep school; and the aptly-named, nominally Catholic Francis Xavier Slaughtery (Barry Pepper), a merciless Wall Street wheeler-dealer whose real religion is money.
While Monty and Francis are clearly skilled in their relations with women, Jacob is a fumbler-mumbler with no females in his life. In a clever, even cruel scene, Francis mentors Jacob on the subject, and mentions among others Jacob's perpetual bad breath. (He might also spoken of clammy hands) This is excellent melting-pot casting of individuals, but at the same time there is something unlikely about the lasting friendship of the disparate buddies.
In Jacob's class Mary. A junior, is a blatantly provocative sex-bomb who tries to uses her wiles with her pathetic instructor in order to get an A which would make her accepted in a good college. Mary is played by Anna Paquin who is 20. For "The Piano" (1994), her film debut, she was Oscared as Best Supporting Actress.
All of the information above is tangential to the core plot in which Monty gets visited by cops who, in a black-humorous and near-sadistic way, find his stash of drugs. Monty was obviously betrayed by someone, and his first suspicions (which prove painful and wrong) are of Naturelle.
Monty gets sentenced to seven years of prison. The movie's title refers to his last day before the penitentiary. The trio of old pals zig-zags throughout the story and slows it down. They are eventually joined--in an "exclusive" night club redolent of sex-- by Mary, whose presence is a bit unnatural, and Naturelle.
I will not reveal more of the plot. While not uninteresting it is surpassed by the performances, notably Norton's, within a sort of filmic quintet. It is in the bathroom of that joint that Monty talks to his image in the mirror and reveals his gripes against one and all in New York City. That's a bravura scene which reprises one in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing." I confess that I like Lee's chutzpah paying homage to himself!
The original novel came out before the September 11 events. Somehow, the film weaves in repeatedly visual references to the World Trade Center tragedy. This is rather gratuitous, unless there's an esoteric reference here to "Casablanca," and Rick's words: "it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."
Whatever the reasons, the movie is elliptical in structure, script and dialogues. Its finale is no closure, but a realistically shot fantasy. This adds to a number of ambivalences and/or arbitrary passages. The editing and continuity could use some additional discipline. Classic films (in the widest sense) are generally disciplined while not making the viewer conscious of efforts.
No matter, "25th Hour" does survive its arbitrarinesses and will probably improve on a second viewing.