Which Spike Nails It?

Lee's heavy hand misses the mark, but Jonze scores with fractured brilliance.

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The ghosts of 9-11 ramble through Spike Lee's 25th Hour, a melancholy mess of a movie that feels like an extended farewell to New York, to freedom, maybe even to life itself. Lee fills the movie — which is about a character preparing to go off to jail for a very long time — with poignant but painfully self- conscious footage of Ground Zero and even supplies a climactic image of those twin blue beams projecting iconic ghost towers over a post-Osama New York City. There's little doubt that the 9-11 allusions are deeply felt but, while they're certainly powerful, they seem out of place, vaguely pretentious (in context) and mostly serve to simply remind us of just how unremarkable the rest of Lee's film is.

To his great credit, Lee is still trying to stretch as a filmmaker, and that's the main reason, maybe the only reason, why 25th Hour can't be considered an outright failure. The film is firmly entrenched in Lee's beloved NYC stomping grounds, but is set outside the director's characteristic African-American milieu, in a largely white world of Wall Street sharks, private schools and swanky midtown clubs. The music here (as omnipresent as in any Lee joint) has a pensive, neoclassical feel that's worlds away from the director's typically danceable pop soundtracks, adding to the impression that Lee's going for a more universal sort of soul-searching this time out.

Ed Norton heads up the almost exclusively white cast, playing Monty Brogan, a big-time Manhattan drug dealer brooding away his last day of freedom before going away for a 7-year prison stretch. There's no real story arc to the film (no real story, period, come to think of it), just Monty wandering around in a state of emotional near-paralysis, glaring at everyone and everything, including himself.

David Benioff's lethargic screenplay simply places Norton's character in one farewell scene after another, showing a whiney, petulant Monty baring his soul to various friends and family members in a spiraling crescendo of regret and self- importance. Far too much of this smacks of Screenwriting 101, with each character entering from Stage Right for his or her big dramatic moment, then disappearing to make way for the next walk-on. Sprinkled throughout the seemingly endless succession of goodbye speeches are emotionally simplistic flashback sequences of Monty interacting with these same characters. What's clearly intended as epic and elegiac comes off as trivial and, often, downright lugubrious.

About as close as we get to drama or even movement here is Monty's suspicion that someone in his inner circle was the one who set him up and sent him away. There's no pay-off there either, though, and 25th Hour ultimately just drifts along from one non-eventful exchange to the next. What exposition the movie contains is delivered in broad strokes that seem aimed at mentally challenged viewers.

All this might have been redeemed had Lee populated the film with some interesting characters, but that's not the case. 25th Hour is a character study without much nuance at all, with virtually every one of Monty's pals coming off as little more than a Type. Barry Pepper plays a high-powered investment banker who's basically just the sum of his aggressions. Rosario Dawson, who plays Monty's girlfriend, looks troubled and attractive, but I'd be hard pressed to supply you with even one salient detail about her character. Even the great Philip Seymour Hoffman is reduced to a cartoon, wearing a dopey baseball hat just so we'll all be sure to recognize what a nerd he's supposed to be.

Lee is way off target and out of his element here, more concerned with sweeping gestures of mood, grandiose symbolism and playing with film stocks than with creating a coherent, meaningful movie. 25th Hour flits between its handful of characters in an apparent effort to be about them all, but winds up becoming about none of them.

It isn't as bad as some of Lee's recent films have been — Bamboozled, for instance — but then again, it's not nearly as interesting a failure as Bamboozled either. On the plus side, as in most Spike Lee movies, there are a handful of odd little scenes that seem to stand outside the film but are almost worth the proverbial admission price. Here we get a pivotal monologue featuring Monty standing before a mirror and ranting against virtually every race, creed and color found in modern Manhattan. No matter that it's a diatribe straight out of Do the Right Thing, with a little "You talkin' to me?" Taxi Driver thrown in. If Lee has to steal moments in order to bring his movie to occasional life, at least he knows enough to cop from the best.

Heavy MetaIt sounds like a Zen riddle, but Adaptation is the sort of anything-goes movie where nothing is simple and, ultimately, everything is. It's the sort of movie where an innocent, rhetorical question asking how someone got in a particular mess is answered by nothing less than a short montage of the 40-million-year evolution of life on planet Earth.

The history-of-life sequence culminates in a shot of the question-asker as a baby popping out of his mother's vagina, then cuts away to the set of the film Being John Malkovich, where the infant's grown into the movie's real-life screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman. As it turns out, Kaufman is struggling with a new project — a big-screen adaptation of Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief — and that's about as close as Adaptation gets to a storyline that might possibly be communicated to a studio executive on a cocktail napkin.

Like Kaufman and director Spike Jonze's Malkovich, the duo's new Adaptation is a nervy, nearly indescribable meta-adventure that grabs so-called Real Life by the short-and-curlies and uses it as a jumping-off point for some of the most fiercely imaginative filmmaking around. Adaptation isn't as overtly surreal or as engagingly nutty as the team's earlier comedy, but, for the most part, it's an even more complex and tantalizing portal into someone else's head.

That head, of course, belongs to Charlie Kaufman himself, who, as played by Nicolas Cage, is pretty much all head but also possesses a body, such as it is, that seems to signal nothing so much as the ultimate triumph of gravity. Kaufman's a lumpy, sweaty, self-absorbed package wrapped in a flannel shirt that's as out of place in L.A. as the writer's challenging screenplays are in the "Industry" (a word he's loath to even utter).

Kaufman's a consummate complainer and a compulsive self-doubter, a geeky, deeply neurotic kvetch as obsessed with his personal flaws, real and imagined (the imagined often seeming more real than the real) as he is with his art. The bulk of Adaptation is essentially just Charlie obsessing about himself, about Orlean's book, about his constantly morphing script, about the creative process in general. He does all this while doing everything he can to make sure the film he's trying to write, which is also called Adaptation, doesn't turn into just another typical Hollywood movie.

For most of its running time, Jonze is just as obsessed with making sure there's nothing typical about Adaptation, the movie about the movie Kaufman's trying to write. In both the film and the film- within-the-film, real life and reel life are blended into a richly self-reflexive, iconoclastic stew, along with ideas and emotions, fact and fantasy, art and commerce, you name it.

Charlie's voice-over rants flow into the parallel narrative of Orlean herself (Meryl Streep), just as the move slips back and forth between Kaufman's dilemma adapting Orlean's story, and Orlean's own problems as an artist and as a human being. The mix becomes even denser with the introduction of Charlie's decidedly less cerebral twin, Donald (also Cage), and the "orchid thief" himself, John Laroche (Chris Cooper) — a loopy redneck whom Orleans begins to find strangely eloquent, then attractive.

Don't make the mistake of assuming that just because Adaptation is such an elaborate and intricate head game that it's also dry, pedantic stuff. Jonze's film is admittedly a snake eating its own tail, but most of it is also thoroughly intoxicating and very high-energy. It's a deliberately fractured symphony, but one that, in its own way, is a lot of fun. Curiously enough, the movie (or at least the movie-within- the-movie) eventually does turn into a big fat cliche; (sort of), but Adaptation is so damned clever about everything it touches that it dares to suggest there's even an art to selling out.

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.

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