by Luke Chamberlin and Josh Tosney
Look. If you had one shot, or one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted, one moment, would you capture it? Or just let it slip? Or would you package it and sell it as a Spike Lee joint?
According to previews, “25th Hour” is the story of Montgomery Brogan (Edward Norton), who has been convicted of dealing drugs and, for some unexplained reason, has one last day as a free man before going to prison to serve out his seven-year sentence. He decides to spend his last free night with his girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) and childhood friends Jake (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a schoolteacher, and Francis (Barry Pepper), a Wall Street broker.
The truth-in-advertising consortium has failed us again. “25th Hour,” advertised as a film about Edward Norton, drugs and last goodbyes, isn’t about Edward Norton, or drugs, or last goodbyes at all. Rather, the film is Spike Lee’s tribute to post-9/11 New York and the resilience of its citizens. Through allegory, Lee portrays America as a victim of the World Trade Center attacks while at the same time acknowledging its responsibility.
From the opening shot of the New York skyline, with its conspicuously absent Twin Towers, Lee contrasts the characters and their actions with the events of 9/11 and their consequences. In a scene inside Francis’ uptown apartment, overlooking the scattered ruins of Ground Zero, Francis tells Jake that Montgomery deserves punishment for his actions. However, it becomes clear that Francis and Jake are blind to their own sins. From Francis’ dubious ethics when it comes to other people’s money, to Jake’s pedophilic relationship with one of his students, they fail to recognize the damage they are causing to others. After this conversation, in one of the film’s less subtle moments, the camera cuts to an extended montage of the crews cleaning up the WTC wreckage. Is Lee implying that New York deserved its “punishment”?
Controversy abounds in most of Spike Lee’s films, though most notably in the form of racial commentary. Not that there isn’t any here, there’s plenty for people of all ethnicities, especially the stereotyped New York neighborhoods. In a time when people are supposed to be uniting, Lee shows the racial boundaries that still divide this country. For the most part, though, these racial issues are secondary to the larger issue of American beliefs and attitudes.
These issues are awkwardly structured, and cause the pace to lag at points, leaving one to wonder if the title refers to the length of the film. There’s something about Lee’s directing style that gets in the way of the performances, and at times the script is weakened by unnatural-sounding dialogue. Fortunately, most of these lines are rescued by the raw quality of the actors, most notably Norton, Hoffman and Pepper.
But they are overshadowed by one man – at least physically. Overweight ex-NFL lineman Tony “The Goose” Siragusa delivers an unforgettable debut performance as a Russian drug dealer. With an awful accent and, quite possibly, the most hideous countenance ever to grace the silver screen, the Super Bowl-winner-turned-thespian proves that the “25th Hour” means it is never too late to start again. Not for Tony, and not for America.