“That’s how I want to remember you.”
2002. Rated R. Directed by Spike Lee. Written by David Benioff. Starring Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Anna Paquin and Brian Cox.
Sorry for the sporadic updating, I’m in the midst of finals and while I have time to write reviews, I haven’t had much time to watch anything. That I’ve put off watching this particular film is apropos, as I’ve been putting it off for years.
This will be the first in another ongoing feature, movies that one or more of my friends considers a favorite, and that I haven’t seen despite their recommendation. I’m going to keep it to movies that have been generally well-received but little-seen so if you’re in the same boat as me, I’ll let you know if it’s worth seeing.
Today’s entry, Spike Lee’s 2002 drama 25th Hour is a story with a great hook with a couple of good scenes and good performances but muddled by needless subplots and Lee’s insistence on letting everyone know he’s directing. The story centers on Monty Brogan (Norton), a man convicted of trafficking heroin and his last day of freedom before reporting to serve a 7-year sentence in prison.
He spends the day wandering the city, still reeling from the 9/11 attacks, soaking it in before he has to leave. His crime lord boss has organized a going-away party at an exclusive club, where Monty takes his girlfriend Naturel (Dawson) and his two best friends, teacher Jacob (Hoffman) and bond trader Francis (Pepper) for one last night out.
This is a terrific idea for a story, as the audience immediately feels pulled into the situation with Monty, and I couldn’t help but think about what I would do if I were in his shoes. It’s a variation on the “one day to live” situation because while Monty’s life as he knows it is about to end, he will get out of prison eventually. But for now he has to take comfort in the small moments of having a last beer with his best friends, or a last embrace from his girlfriend. Because of how personal the story can be, the best scenes in the film are the quieter ones where Monty shares a moment with his loved ones, including a very affecting scene with his father, played by the always-great Brian Cox.
As opposed to his subdued work in the underrated 2006 heist flick Inside Man, Lee fills this movie with a lot of awkward editing — both intentional and just plain sloppy, and odd camera angles and all the unnecessary stylistic bullshit just distracts from the story. There’s an overlong scene partway through where Norton’s character rants in front of a mirror, a scene that felt forced, out of place and completely took me out of the movie. It’s clear Lee was going for a memorable, trademark scene, but it simply does not work.
The story structure also takes away from the story — rather than letting the action take us through the day, Lee inserts flashbacks throughout which detract from the main plot. The flashback that opens the film is a good scene that takes on more importance as the story unfolds, but the rest of the flashback scenes lack any suspense and should have been left out. We don’t need to see exactly how Monty met Naturel or exactly how he got busted — the characters can talk about that in the present. There’s also an extended sequence towards the end that could have been left out.
How much of the problem lies with Lee as opposed to Benioff’s script (based on his own novel) is tough to tell, as apparently the movie is very faithful to the source material. Unfortunately, that includes a fair amount of awkward and stilted dialogue in addition to the overall problems with the plot. Perhaps the most egregious offense is a pointless subplot with an overmatched Anna Paquin playing a jailbait temptation to Hoffman’s high school teacher. It brings nothing to the table. This is a story that should have been completely focused on Norton’s character and his last day, but there are too many distractions.
Norton gives a solid performance but Monty is not as defined as I would have liked him to be. We never get enough of an idea of why he fell into the criminal lifestyle and part of that is the lack of focus on his character. Apparently Tobey Maguire (who produced) was originally going to star, but Norton is a much, much better choice. Both Pepper & Hoffman are perfectly cast and Dawson gives a surprisingly good performance. Former defensive tackle Tony Siragusa shows up with a bad Russian accent, which was pretty random.
25th Hour should have been a subdued story of a man coming to grips with his past actions in the subdued world of post-9/11 New York, but unfortunately that’s not what it is. The potential is there, and if the film had been more focused on Norton and perhaps a little more sparse and contemplative it would have been a success for me. As it stands, it was a disappointment.