25th Hour (R)
Is it just me or has anyone else noticed how New York's preeminent auteurs Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and Woody Allen have more in common than just their profession? While all three have been reclining on their laurels as they make flop after flop, there's something more glaring that unites them: They're all short.
Allen's small guy vice is sexual fantasy, casting himself in roles that posit the plausibility of women like Charlize Theron or Tea Leoni falling for his bony butt. Scorsese and Lee get off on ultra-violent orgies of noble savage machismo.
Scorsese grew up severely asthmatic and spent his boyhood in a movie theater. Spike was a precocious middle class black kid from Brooklyn. Their indulgence in a machismo that was never theirs reminds me of the lanky teenage boys who pour over magazines like Soldier of Fortune or the assbags who can't make varsity and thus treat gym class like an athletic jihad.
Anyone who has inhaled the eau de Manhattan aroma of car exhaust, honey-roasted peanuts and dried piss knows it's not a town for the faint of heart. But I'm willing to wager these waning directors are so coddled by their celebrity status that they no longer know the city that made them. For all their trumpeted New York authenticity, all have been slurping at the teat of the bourgeoisie for so long they might as well be making films about Aspen. Private drivers, personal assistants, they've come a long way from their respective mean streets. (For what it's worth, my friend who once worked in Scorsese's editing room told me how the director rejected the toast she had fetched for being unevenly buttered.)
In 25th Hour -- Lee's second honky project -- Ed Norton plays Monty Brogan, a busted drug dealer facing his last day before the start of a 7-year prison sentence. Monty spends his final hours ruminating on where his life went wrong, assuaging the conscience of his guilt-ridden father (Brian Cox) and trying to unravel the mystery of who ratted him out. Was it his nubile girlfriend, (Rosario Dawson) or his corpulent Armenian mob partner (Tony Siragusa)?
For his final hurrah, Norton summons his childhood pals: Jakob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a high school teacher with a Lolita fix on his sprightly student (Anna Paquin); and Slaughtery (Barry Pepper) an egomaniacal stockbroker. A tension cloud hovers over both men as they debate what they can possibly say to their friend. (The film is not so subtly underscored by a collective fear for Norton's virgin anus.)
That Lee can summon such a cast is a testament to his auteurial mystique. And he manages to get a few things right, like the unenviable task of incorporating a post 9-11 New York without resorting to undue sentimentality. The shots of impromptu fireman shrines and Bin Laden posters not only ring true, but lend a larger framework to the film's elegiac tone.
Less to Lee's credit than the original novel by David Benioff, 25th Hour is built on an inherently compelling premise. Namely, how do you face your final hours of freedom? When you're all too painfully aware that you'll never be the same and that your friends are unlikely to host your welcome home party, how do you confront the next minute, much less the next day?
Where Lee goes wrong, once again, is in his heavy-handed direction, including his now patented over-scoring that too often drowns out the dialogue. There are didactic montages to drill home various "messages" and a final voice-over flight fantasy that sucks the drama out of Norton's moment of consequence. Also included is a lecture on New York state's Rockefeller drug laws and an amusing, though inexcusably derivative, Do The Right Thing montage of racial slurs.
The non-stop spew of hardman talk and an indulgent tough-love reckoning between Norton and Pepper are further manifestations of Lee's small man pathology. Just like Marty and Woody, Spike seems to be acting out a rage that's as inexhaustible as it is impotent. Perhaps sitting courtside at every Knicks game is too much of a reminder of his perceived lack.
With all that has changed in New York, perhaps what's also needed is a regime change. Certainly Gotham does not want for pathological talent. In the meantime, consider the words of a short man who got over it: Tis better to have loved a short person and lost, than to have loved a tall.
-- John Dicker