Long day's journey

Norton is brilliant in Lee's so-so `Hour'

January 10, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Spike Lee's 25th Hour, about a drug dealer (Edward Norton) on his last day of freedom before a seven-year jail term, could have clicked as a subtle mystery about the anti-hero figuring out who in his circle turned him in, and as an open-ended exploration of character - the sort of thing that Spike Lee's sound-alike, Mike Leigh, routinely turns into art. Instead, it's an overextended mood movie about a man with a ruptured life traveling through a traumatized New York City.

Norton, a brilliant performer, delivers a no-mercy portrait of a tough, rueful guy trying to be honest about untenable prospects. He has few illusions that his love life with Rosario Dawson and his old friendships with bond trader Barry Pepper and schoolteacher Philip Seymour Hoffman will survive his seven years' absence (he even considers whether Dawson put the finger on him). And he's scared about what the other inmates will do to a prisoner as good-looking as himself.

In the running dialogue among the anti-hero and his friends and father (Brian Cox), much of it lifted straight from David Benioff's novel (Benioff also wrote the script), the movie captures a volatile mix of support, accusation and regret. They're fitting emotions for a man who was messing his life up for years between loved ones who did nothing to stop him. Of course, these emotions also suit a huge metropolis blindsided by a terrorist attack. That match-up is both serendipitous and overly tempting for director Lee, who places the Tribute in Light in the opening credits and gives Pepper an apartment with a view of the World Trade Center site - a view Lee lingers on self-consciously.

Lee has been trying to imbue his features with the spontaneous personality and the sense of history caught on the run permeating the best parts of his documentaries, such as 4 Little Girls. But his tempo grows too languid, his pace too slack, over the very long haul of 25th Hour. The book is a quicker read than the movie is a "view," partly because of the novelist's quicksilver virtuosity at slipping in each character's point of view.

Lee's 25th Hour is a bewildering combination of canny instincts and awkwardness. In one sequence, a flurry of choice cuts brings home the boredom of Hoffman's disengaged English class; in another sequence, Lee drops in the critical flashback to the DEA agents searching Norton's pad without any of the poetic intensity the action needs to anchor the drama in paranoia and regret. The one exciting signature Lee riff - Norton ranting about every subculture in the city in an attempt to recast his love for it as hate - comes right from the pages of the book.

On the plus side, former Raven Tony Siragusa offers a welcome whiff of untrammeled earthiness as Norton's Ukrainian partner, a burly master of broken English. Hoffman is a whiz at portraying bottled-up sexuality and furtive intelligence, and Pepper skillfully suggests the panicked humanity within the focused aggression of a hard-driving Wall Streeter. Their scene together at a Chinese restaurant, where they compare lives as they scarf their food, is an acting beauty. But the pivotal nightclub farewell party just dribbles away; Hoffman's clumsy encounters with a student he has a crush on (Anna Paquin) plays like something out of TV's Boston Public.

Norton alone supplies the film with a modicum of tautness. His performances have a sneaky urgency; even when he's acting self-control, he brush-strokes in the pressures that could make him erupt. Even as a worried man, he's a live wire. Without him, 25th Hour would be a depressed movie about depression.

25th Hour

Starring Edward Norton, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson and Philip Seymour Hoffman

Directed by Spike Lee

Released by Touchstone

Rated R

Time 134 minutes

Sun Score: **1/2

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