Neil Young’s Film Lounge – 25th Hour
USA 2002 : Spike LEE : 134 mins
25th Hour has much more in common with The Hours than just their similar-sounding titles. Both films try and fail – to condense sprawling novels into feature-films, with results that are often frustratingly pretentious and overblown: all too nakedly desperate in their need to be taken seriously as profound meditations on the human condition. Spike Lee, like The Hours Stephen Daldry, fills his movie with talented performers who produce typically magnetic work but the directorial contributions simply don’t measure up, leaving the distinct impression that both men bit off rather more than they yet were able to chew.
In fact, so heavy-handed is Lees approach that you wonder whether the terrific opening titles sequence restrained, haunting images of Manhattan on September 11th, 2002, when beams of light indicated the former location of the World Trade Center is perhaps the work of the films second unit (director Mike Ellis, cinematographer Ellen Kuras) rather than Lee and his own DP, Rodrigo Prieto. Its certainly all downhill from here, as we follow Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) on his final day of freedom before he starts a seven-year prison sentence for drug offences.
As he mopes around Manhattan with his faithful dog Doyle whom he’d rescued from death in the effective pre-credits prologue Monty worries about how hell cope inside and ponders the wrong turns that have led to his current dire straits. He meets up his best friends Francis Xavier Frank Slaughtery (Barry Pepper), a highly-strung Wall Street trader, and school-teacher Jacob Jake Elinsky (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is struggling to contain his inappropriate feelings for teenage pupil Mary DAnnunzio (Anna Paquin). Monty says farewell to his Puerto Rican girlfriend Naturelle Rivera (Rosario Dawson), and his father, bar-owner James (Brian Cox), and also sorts out his problems with his former colleagues in the world of crime Ukrainian/Russian mobsters Kostya (Tony Siragusa) and Nikolai (Levani).
Lee working from a script by David Benioff (who also wrote the original book) alternates between episodes from Montys present and past: but unlike in The Hours, when the different time-frames are clearly delineated, were often caught slightly off-guard, and it isn’t always easy to know when certain events are taking place. Despite the title, there isn’t much sense that what were seeing is a chronicle of one crucial day – at the end, James drives Monty to prison and, in a monologue, paints an alternative future in which Monty eludes justice and settles down in a remote rural town with Naturelle.
Lees visuals illustrate this sequence in the clunkiest manner possible, complete with footage of Norton wearing middle-aged make-up as this imaginary future Monty poses with his very Hispanic-looking family the prosthetics are only marginally more convincing than Julianne Moores old-woman get-up at the end of The Hours. Lee does no favours to Coxs delivery, effectively ruining what could and should have been a powerful, poignant finale: rather than pondering Montys moral dilemma and empathising with his feelings of guilt and remorse, were instead distracted by how similar this section is to The Last Temptation of Christ, just as earlier bits had very strongly recalled Mean Streets and/or Taxi Driver.
These include whats presumably intended as a set-piece monologue in which Monty snarls into a washroom mirror, ranting against every ethnic and social group in New York. As with the Cox speech at the end, it could and should be powerful stuff but Lee can’t stop himself from over-egging the pudding, and he cuts away to clumsily inserts of Montys targets who we (like Monty) see as cartoonish stereotypes. Again and again, Lee spoils the effect of scenes with excessive cutting editor Barry Alexander Brown must have been worn out by the end of post-production. Even worse is Lees over-emphatic use of Terence Blanchards score, which reaches an unforgivably galumphing nadir when we see Ground Zero. As the camera moves forward to take in the terrible vista, the swells soundtrack with operatic muzak and an angelic-choral lament if the subject matter werent so overwhelmingly serious, youd be forgiven for thinking that Lee and company were aiming for some kind of weird satire, so thuddingly bombastic and portentous is their stylistic flourish.
September 11th is a running subcurrent throughout 25th Hour but its never successfully integrated with the central story and ends up feeling as gratuitous and meaningless as the films bizarre X-Men running in-jokes – which include the naming of Paquins character, a mild variant on her Marie dAncato from X-Men.
25th Hour, if nothing else, gives Cox and Paquin rather more to work on than X-2: they, like Norton, Pepper, Dawson and, particularly (if predictably) Hoffman all make the most of the meaty character stuff in Benioffs script (this is the kind of screenplay where people always keep mentioning each others names.) Hoffman and Paquins drunken, fumbling, forbidden nightclub encounter is perhaps the strongest individual post-credits sequence, especially when the camera remains fixed on Hoffmans thunderstruck face as he exits, suddenly realising that his life will never be the quite same again. But we never quite make that kind of contact with Monty, though this is in theory his movie. Its really a question of focus the actors have it, their director and scriptwriter aren’t so lucky. Which means, unfortunately, that neither is the audience.
(seen 27th April 2003: Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle)
by Neil Young