After Sept. 11, we heard a lot about images of the World Trade Center being digitally removed from movies, out of fear that they'd somehow offend audiences, or remind them of a world that they presumably wanted to escape. Martin Scorsese addressed this unfortunate trend at the very end of Gangs of New York, in a scene in which we watch the Manhattan skyline evolve from a vantage point in Brooklyn.
The decades zip by; the buildings and bridges go up, until we finally see the Twin Towers standing tall on the island. No doubt it was Scorsese's intention to end with a flourish: celebrating what was built, simultaneously rebuilding the towers. It was a nice gesture, except that the towers are now gone.
Cut to a very different New York City film, by a different New York City director. At the beginning of Spike Lee's 25th Hour, we see shafts of purple light, accompanied by a dirge by composer and trumpeter Terence Blanchard. With a start, we realize that we're looking at the World Trade Center memorial, a monument of lasers that lit up the skyline last December in a ghostly homage. It's a stirring, mournful montage, and it may be the only time this viewer has been moved to tears during a film's opening credits.
The specter of the vanished towers serves as the spiritual backdrop for Lee's dislocated, confused and disillusioned thirty-something characters. Based on a 2001 novel by David Benioff (who also wrote the script), 25th Hour concerns the last day of freedom for Monty Brogan (Edward Norton), a no-longer-young drug dealer preparing to begin a seven-year prison term in an upstate pen.
Obsessed by the violent fate which surely awaits him behind bars, Brogan goes through his final day like a dying man, anxious to settle his accounts. The main part of the film is taken up with the evening Brogan spends with his Puerto Rican girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) and Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Frank (Barry Pepper), two of his chums from high school.
This film is a long, melancholy goodbye to youth, to a city and to a state of being. Early in the film, Brogan has a spectacular encounter with his own image in a bathroom mirror, when he rants against the city's inhabitants--no race, religion or ethnicity is spared--before finally turning the vitriol against himself, a bright man and a failure.
Although the speech is lifted from the novel, it's a vintage Spike moment, an in-your-face technique that goes back to his feature debut, She's Gotta Have It. The scene is a rude one in any context, but coming as it does after all the sentimental, post-Sept. 11 tributes to New York's diversity, it's a jarring and necessary reminder of the city's inescapable intensity. For people under duress, as Brogan is, this intensity can be unbearable.
25th Hour is a leisurely film, with long scenes that expore the textures of its characters' inner lives, their dreams and frustrations. And at every turn, Lee resists the easy narrative options. A more conventional film would have put the focus on an escape attempt, or on an effort to expose the person who betrayed Brogan to the cops. Although such issues do come up, this remains a character and mood-driven film.
It's also a long one: Two hours and 15 minutes is a rather self-indulgent running time for an impressionistic, plotless film. Some scenes go on and on: in one, Frank and Jacob look out from Frank's apartment window at the former site of the World Trade Center. But what should have been a powerful scene is instead dilated by the rambling conversation that ensues.
Worse, the film refuses to end. There's an ending, which segues into another ending, which leads to a dream sequence, which leads to another ending. This may be due to an excessive adherence to the source material, or it may be simply that Spike Lee can't let go of the film and its characters.
On the other hand, so much of the film is infused with feeling for the city's rhythms and the longings of its inhabitants that we can forgive it its excesses. This is a film with shots that have no purpose beyond, for example, expressing the sublimity of sitting and watching a tugboat progress up the East River.
Not since Woody Allen's Annie Hall and Manhattan has the romantic, poetic allure of New York been so richly evoked. (It will be interesting to see if Woody can find a way to acknowledge Sept. 11 in one of his films.) The best of the film's multiple endings is a montage of the same multi-hued faces that were seen in Brogan's vile rant earlier in the film. Accompanied by a Copland-esque fanfare, this sequence is a perfect resolution to Spike Lee's love poem for his hometown.
Alexander Payne's About Schmidt is getting a lot of year-end acclaim, mostly due to Jack Nicholson's performance as a Willy Loman-esque retiree who discovers his entire life has been a waste.
His performance is certainly a marvel to watch. Whether it serves the story is a different question.
Nicholson's face is a national treasure: His visage should be bronzed and placed in the Smithsonian, between Archie Bunker's chair and Judy Garland's ruby slippers. But the converse side of his outsized persona is that it's very hard for him to disappear into a character. He is always a charismatic bad boy, even when playing Warren Schmidt, an aging, diffident insurance actuary from Omaha, Neb.
Shortly after his joyless reitrement party, Nicholson's Schmidt begins to sense his utter insignificance. Resentfully, he decides that his wife is a repulsive old harpy, and that the waterbed salesman his adored daughter intends to marry is a dolt. Fortunately for Schmidt, the inconvenient wife gets killed off quickly, freeing him to hit the road. Along the way, he narrates his spiritual progress in letters to an African boy named Ndugu, whom he has "adopted" for 22 dollars a month.
Out on the road, the film becomes an updated version of Nicholson films from three decades ago, namely Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces. In each, Nicholson played a rebellious outsider, traveling in a country full of squares. In About Schmidt, he's an old man finally making his break, only to discover he's surrounded by idiots.
But Nicholson's earlier films were made in a specific cultural moment, one of widespread disenchantment with middle-class values that had given us sexual repression, racial segregation and the Vietnam War. In About Schmidt, the targets are too easy. Dermot Mulroney's mulleted waterbed salesman is just as stupid as he looks, and it comes as no surprise to discover that Schmidt's beloved daughter (Hope Davis) actually works in shipping and receiving at her company, rather than being the executive Schmidt had imagined.
The wedding at the film's end is a succession of merciless assaults on the bad taste and limited intelligence of middle America: The celebrators sing vapid songs badly, and recite sentimental doggerel in dead earnest.
A few years back, Fargo was attacked for similarly lampooning the American heartland. That film, however, was amply redeemed by a genuinely witty script and the relentless, fundamental decency of Frances McDormand's Marge. More recently, The Good Girl explored the spiritual yearnings of America's working class. It gave real dignity to characters that could well have been objects of scorn in this film.
About Schmidt would have been more successful if it had found a way to subvert, or challenge our assumptions about humble people in America's heartland. Such a film might also have provided a stronger foil to Jack Nicholson's irrepressible hipster act, a persona that, at this late stage of his career, remains as indelible as it is entertaining.