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As a narrative film, 25th Hour is aimless and boring, in spite of a great cast and occasionally brilliant direction. But what it lacks in action, it makes up for in tone. Terence Blanchard’s expressive musical score becomes the backbone for this slice-of-life drama.

The Hours

Edward Norton considers his fate in the 25 hours before prison
Edward Norton considers his fate in the 25 hours before prison

The film takes place during the course of, presumably, 25 hours, although an introductory scene and later flashbacks break this rule. These 25 hours are Monty’s (Edward Norton) last before he has to report to prison for dealing and possession.

Now, on his last day of freedom, he is wrapping up his affairs. He spends time with his girlfriend, his father, some chums from high school, and his Russian mob connections. Monty talks to them about his fears: he’s too soft and pretty for prison; he’ll be an old man when he gets out; he’ll never work again with a criminal record.

One of his friends is Francis (Barry Pepper), a stockbroker who rates himself in the 99th percentile of attractiveness to women, mostly because of his wealth. Another is Jakob (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who seems to be trapped in lecherous roles), a high school teacher undergoing a mid-life crisis. He has fallen for one of his students, and she’s only 17.

Monty’s relationship with his girlfriend Naturelle (a rigid Rosario Dawson) is strained. He suspects she may have been the one who turned him in, although there seems to be as much love between them as ever under the surface.

Monty has a refreshingly adult relationship with his father (Brian Cox). Monty is able to admit that he screwed up his life by becoming involved in illegal activities. Now all he wants is some fatherly advice. Dad has overcome any shock, and although he still gives his wayward son some admonishment, he’s mostly there to commiserate.

A Place Where Nothing Ever Happens

David Benioff based the screenplay for 25th Hour on his own book. Judging from the film, the book is probably very good. Its translation to the screen, however, leaves something to be desired.

The drama and acting are very good. Director Spike Lee has rounded up some talented actors for this ensemble drama. Norton and Cox in particular give thoughtful, emotive performances. In a book, I can imagine getting inside these people’s heads and finding out what makes them tick.

A movie, however, needs more than characters and a situation. It needs a plot, or at least some conflict. 25th Hour is directionless and bland. Although we can sympathize with its characters, following them around becomes tedious.

Zeitgeist

What the film lacks in action, it makes up for in tone. The slow, somber feel of the movie is well controlled, always in tune with Monty’s moods.

There is a particularly outstanding scene that only Spike Lee could make. Monty narrates a three-minute rant against New Yorkers (reminiscent of a famous scene in Lee’s Do the Right Thing), while Lee shows a montage of these same New Yorkers innocently going about their business, the twin towers conspicuously missing from the skyline.

“Fuck the gays; fuck the brokers, fuck the Hasidic Jews. Send the Enron bastards to jail for life. Fuck the Bensonhurst Italians; fuck the Puerto Ricans; fuck the Upper East Side whites. Fuck JC, he got off easy, a day on the cross, a weekend in hell. Fuck Osama. Fuck this whole city and everyone in it.”

Norton’s words are angry, but his voice is weary. Behind the rant, Blanchard’s music plays melancholy and simple, and surprisingly pretty. All together — voice, music and image — the scene has incredible power. It seems to tap into some inexpressible post-September-11 zeitgeist.

The Medium Is the Message

The scene would make one hell of an installation in an art gallery, but it doesn’t belong to this or any other movie. It’s an interlude that stands alone and apart from the other events in this film.

Which brings us back to where we started, that perhaps the best thing about the film is Terence Blanchard’s score. If film is a literal and realistic medium and music is an evocative one, then maybe 25th Hour is meant to be a musical composition rather than a film. Perhaps it makes sense that Terence Blanchard should be the star.