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25th Hour

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: 25th Hour

Starring: Edward Norton, Rosario Dawson
Director: Spike Lee
Rated: R
RunTime: 135 Minutes
Release Date: January 2003
Genre: Drama

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Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

We throw around aphorisms like "Seize the Day" and "Live every day as if it's your last" without emotionally grasping the significance of this shrewd advice. In "25th Hour," Spike Lee, using a script by David Benioff from Benioff's novel, explores the concept through the eyes of a man who is not literally living out his final day on the planet, but who in some ways shares a terminally ill person's angst. New York resident Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) is due to check into an upstate prison in twenty- four hours to serve a seven-year term for possession of drugs with intent to sell. Looking at himself realistically as a skinny, good- looking white guy, he knows what's in store for him in the brig every time the lights in the penitentiary go out.

This is the sort of drama that a run-of-the-mill Hollywood director with a big budget would treat as a melodrama, crammed with adrenalin-pumping music, explosions, and shoot-outs with the police who would be hot on the trail of a runaway felon. Though we have no idea why the authorities would allow such a fellow post-sentencing to be on the loose and consider escape, Spike Lee is far more interested in examining character, particularly the relationships that Monty has developed and is now sadly giving up, affording him good reason to feel that he has thrown his youth away. In short this is not a prison drama as such but rather an attractive young person's belated coming to terms with himself, sadly considering "if only," and wondering whether he has any real options short of serving his time.

The opening of a story finds Monty walking around near a New York pier with his Ukranian-born friend Kostya (Tony Siragusa), razzing the large man for his apparent mental thickness. Monty demonstrates early on that despite his drug dealing which dates back to his selling weed to high-school students, he's a decent guy who takes in a pit bull mix that had been thrown from a window and left for dead. In this initial scene Spike Lee points up that Monty could have led a good, moral life but challenges us in the audience to know when a scene is a flashback and when it is taking place during the single, last day of freedom in the man's life.

Meeting with his dad, James Brogan(Brian Cox), Monty must fend off suggestions that he escape to a small town out West and in a smashing surreal scene we watch how this option would play out as Monty grows old with his wife Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) and enjoys the company of a bunch of kids to whom he reveals his big secret only when they have grown up. Monty enjoys his loving girlfriend Naturelle Riviera (Dawson), whom he had met in a playground when the woman was just eighteen; and the supportive company of his good friends, prep school English teacher Jacob Elinsky (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and hotshot investment banker Francis Xavier Slaughtery (Barry Pepper).

Lee's repeated flashbacks, which continue to blend in with Monty's final day of freedom, explore the varied lives of Monty's circle, and it is here that scripter David Benioff's sharp dialog effectively mixes humor with pathos. The nerdy Jacob has not come to terms with what he considers a wasted life, his job as a high-school teacher failing to fulfill him while he harbors a passion for a 17-year-old student, Mary D'Annuzio (Anna Paquin) that Humbert Humbert would understand only too well. By contrast Francis is energized by a high-pressure job that allows him to spend up to $100 million for his clients in his investment house. While he has his eye out for the women, he can appreciate the temptations of a young body, feelings that obsess his friend Jacob.

"25th Hour" does have some suspense. We wonder whether Monty will take advantage of his dad's advice to flee the city by driving west and taking on a new identity, but we probably know that Monty has come to terms with his past and looks to redeem his life by taking the punishment meted out by the draconian Rockefeller laws. Not the stuttering schizoid he played in Gregory Hoblit's "Primal Fear," not the tough hombre of "American History X" or the adorable romantic in Woody Allen's "Everybody Says I Love You," a vulnerable but strong Edward Norton anchors the compelling story while Spike Lee adds cinematic variety through surreal imagery and seamless retreats to the past and future.

David Thomson writes in his "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film" that Spike Lee is "is capable of a great film about New York." One can only say to that major film critic, "Here you go."

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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