Again and again and again, directors insist that the American Dream doesn’t really exist. It is just that, a dream, unattainable for 99% of the population, yet still they strive, hoping for success they will never achieve. With 25th Hour, Spike Lee gives us his typically proselytizing insight into this idea – a mixture of racial intolerance, a drug dealer’s downfall, racial intolerance, the World Trade Center, and racial intolerance. There are flashes of excellence, moments of superb realism, but they are always quickly flushed away by Lee’s desire to preach, or his reliance on filming things in an unnecessarily over the top way.
Virtually all the characters in the film are, in some way or another, pathetic. Edward Norton’s Monty is a dealer, about to go inside for seven years, giddy with remorse for wasting such a large portion of his life. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s schoolteacher lusts after one of his students (played by Anna Paquin as a slutty motormouth – where will she end up?), and looks horribly out of place in a club with his baseball cap and nerdy glasses. Barry Pepper’s investment banker is a success in his professional life, and presumably also a success with women, but one gets the feeling that some kind of moral satisfaction is missing from his life, and he knows it. Of the three friends, he is closest to the so-called dream because he has worked to get to a certain place professionally and has made it, but he realises that his position is such that he will never be truly happy with his lot.
Then there’s Monty’s dad (played by Brian Cox), an Irish immigrant who owns a bar and misses his wife (and will soon miss his son). He is happy, and has done all he can to give himself a good quality of life, but the fact remains that his son chose a life of crime and is now going to be punished for it. So now we have a good, honest man who, through no fault of his own, has hardship thrust upon him. You can do most things right, and then have the rug pulled out from underneath you. At the film’s end, in a particularly frustrating sequence, he tries to persuade Monty to run from the law and start a new life – a pathetic, hopeful dream that has absolutely no chance of coming true.
The one who bucks the trend is the improbably named Naturelle, played by Rosario Dawson with strength and grace. Throughout the course of the film, she is bombarded with accusations, yet she remains composed and true to her character, clearly feeling strong emotions but refusing to let them override the situation. Still, she’s losing her partner. One feels that she will wait for him, despite her youth and his shady past. But if that does happen, will their new life be a happy one? Monty appears to have changed, but what will he be like after seven years in the can?
All this is fine, but what bugs me is Lee’s approach. The actors fight so hard to offer subtle, detailed characterisations, especially Hoffman and Norton, but his direction frequently takes the focus away from them onto his flashy camerawork, or his political agenda. Can’t we have a Spike Lee film without big bad racial stereotypes being painted onto panes of glass then SMASHED with the Hammer of Equality? I’m sick of it. Yes, it’s awful that a lot of people still think this way, but the way he presents these stereotypes does more to promote them than it does to tear them down. I’d much rather he just ignored them and filled his films with people of different, mingling ethnicities. There’s a taste of that with Naturelle being Puerto Rican, but you quickly forget that after his slick montages of blacks, Sikhs, Arabs, Mexicans, Koreans… etc.
The American Dream angle only became apparent to me during Cox’s final speech. Up until then, it had been an interesting, if somewhat misguided look at redemption, friendship and companionship. The film was suddenly twisted into something much grander in scope, and consequently it became a much deeper failure. I loved some moments – listen closely to the banter between friends, it’s just like real people – but the moments I really, really hated were double that. I’ll check out some earlier Lee someday, but for now, I’m sick of his greedy directorial style and heavy-handed treatment of potentially interesting themes.