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25TH HOUR

A Hole in the Heart

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Spike Lee's absorbing new drama takes place on the last day of freedom for Monty Brogan, a 31-year-old kid from Brooklyn who got a scholarship to a good college, where he started small by selling marijuana to his peers. A decade later, Monty (Edward Norton) faces seven years of hard time because someone told the cops where to find his merchandise (stuffed inside his swanky new leather couch), and because he kept his mouth shut rather than inform on the sanguinary Russian mobster for whom he works.

Before he goes off to prison the next morning, Monty visits his Pop (Brian Cox) -- a recovering alcoholic who owns an Irish pub -- and implores his girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) to forget him. He meets with the Russians to reaffirm his silence, and he parties all night at a club with Naturelle and his two beloved friends: the raffish stud Frank (Barry Pepper), a Type A stock broker and fellow Irishman from the Brooklyn 'hood who isn't afraid to declare that Monty got what he deserves for his crimes and his stupidity; and the timid, wistful Jake (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an altruistic high school English teacher and Upper East Side Jew who romanticizes Monty's bad luck and forgives his transgressions.

This is unusual material for Lee, and he handles it unusually: Although 25th Hour has a few moments of characteristic rage, it's essentially a mournful parable about friendship, love and personal choice, as well as a movie that has virtually nothing to do with race.

25th Hour has an elegiac mini-subplot about -- as much as I hate this already-clichéd phrase, there's no better way to say it -- New York City in the post-Sept. 11 world. Lee's opening titles drift over images of the brilliant white memorial spotlights used to recreate the Twin Towers, and Frank lives in a high-rise that overlooks Ground Zero. In a compelling set piece early in the film, Monty stares at himself in a mirror while his ranting alter-ego reflection hurls epithets at every imaginable ethnic, social and cultural group in New York. Much later, in a paean to his city's diversity and resilience, Lee presents a unifying montage of the raving reflection's verbal victims.

It makes no difference that these stories don't go together, although Lee tries to make them both be about broken American Dreams. 25th Hour is a bracing drama-cum-essay, with flawless acting from its three male leads, and especially from Pepper in a role that takes him emotionally round the world. Typical of his edgy cinema, Lee stages many long, leisurely scenes of introspective dialogue, and Terence Blanchard's musical score glides and wails beneath the action, sometimes a symphony, sometimes a jazz riff.

You'll have to work out for yourself why Lee allows us to feel such unapologetic sympathy for Monty, who's the nicest fellow you'd ever want to meet, except for that drug thing and the bravado lifestyle it affords. Perhaps Lee thinks that drugs are a victimless crime, or that his movie is a metaphor beyond its superficial reality. Nonetheless, 25th Hour is achingly beautiful and furiously sad, a lament for its people and its place, and a small treasure from one of America's most rewarding and original filmmakers. * * *

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