25th Hour

dir. Lee

Opens Fri Jan 10

Various Theaters

We spend the first half of 25th Hour trying to figure out who turned in heroin dealer Ed Norton. Is it his girlfriend? One of his two best friends? Could it be his father?

I was disappointed to be wondering about such standard movie fodder. Norton has 24 hours before he starts serving a seven-year sentence, and we follow him around his old haunts, picking up backstory as we go. He's shown to be sympathetic--he saves a dog, got into dealing to help his dad, wears Helmut Lang. His friends and relations are given the scrawniest of characterizations--silky girlfriend, Wall Street hot dog, nerdy high school teacher, reformed Irish alcoholic.

There's no problem with the actors. Norton is as capable an antihero as his generation provides. Philip Seymour Hoffman, as one of the friends, and Brian Cox, as Norton's father, are among our greatest actors. If Hoffman descends to strangled schtick in the absence of a script, I for one feel grateful. Cox performs the even greater service of acting in thin air, making a character seem like a real person trapped inside a stereotype. Actors, however, don't get to write their own lines.

Okay, so it's that kind of movie. I was disappointed because Spike Lee is capable of making movies quite unlike anybody else. Still, if the guy wants to make a B movie, let him make a B movie.

And yet, no Spike Lee film is without its rewards. The 9/11 material in the movie sits there like a big, undigested lump of suet, which seems appropriate. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros) provides eye candy. Norton has a mirror sequence that's sure to join Robert De Niro's "You lookin' at me?" as the subject of endless impersonation.

All in all, 25th Hour is no train wreck; it's more like the collapse of a rickety little scooter.