Spike Lee is one of our most important filmmakers, and one of the most prolific. Since his first feature, "She's Gotta Have It," in 1986, he's made more than twenty features and documentaries, including the essential "Do the Right Thing," "Malcolm X," and "He Got Game." But his new film, "25th Hour," from the novel and screenplay by David Benioff, is weak, sluggish and contrived. It's depressing to think that Lee, who is capable of greatness, should have given so much of himself to this film.
The story is so thin as to be almost invisible. Brooklyn drug dealer Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) has been busted and must begin his 7-year prison sentence tomorrow. He spends the day and night with his two old friends, high-school teacher Jacob Elinsky (Philip Seymour Hoffman in his stock inept zhlub role) and Wall Street trader Frank Slaughtery (Barry Pepper, playing as a low-rent Gordon Gecko). His girlfriend Naturelle Rivera (Rosario Dawson) tries to comfort him but runs into his suspicion that she may be the one who ratted him out. His father, Staten Island bar owner James Brogan (Brian Cox), ultimately suggests a way out as the two of them drive to the prison next morning.
Good films, even great ones, have been made out of less, but this is a film only of episodes and incidents, without insight or epiphany or catharsis. Monty is understandably afraid of jail - a good-looking young white guy is likely to be victimized, raped and enslaved in prison. But he stayed true to the code and did not give up his suppliers in the Russian mafia. So what happens in this last 24 hours? Jacob has a crush on one of his 17-year-old students (Anna Paquin), who will try to make him raise her grade through the promise of sex. Frank bets on an economic report influencing his stocks and wins big. Much is made of 9/11 (Cox is a retired firefighter and Frank's high-rise apartment overlooks Ground Zero). Monty acknowledges that greed got him caught ("I had a half a million, and then I thought I needed more.").
But as good as Edward Norton is, and he is one of the finest film actors working today, he cannot bring any kind of meaning to the role or the film. He tries hard, and finds bits and pieces of business to indicate a subtext that could illuminate his character, but there's so little in the script he just flounders in the attempt. Spike Lee's genius has always been for performances rather than staging, and there are many awkward moments here when he sets his scenes amateurishly, but ultimately the fault is not his but Benioff's, and there's no help for that.