I Hear New York Ranting

Spike Lee vs. Kenneth Lay and Mullah Omar.

Edward Norton’s screed fails to add up

The centerpiece of Spike Lee’s new film, 25th Hour, is a scabrous, brutal monologue in which the (anti-)hero, an Irish drug dealer named Monty Brogan who’s enjoying one last night of freedom before heading off to jail for seven years, vents his anger at seemingly every ethnic group in New York City. In a kind of reverse Whitmanic litany—with the recurring refrain “Fuck the …”—Brogan blasts Korean merchants peddling overpriced fruit, Upper East Side matrons who think no one can see their face lifts, baseball-bat-wielding goombas, black basketball players who travel every time they go to the hole, lazy Dominicans (“who make the Puerto Ricans look good”), and racist, trigger-happy cops.

Lee is, of course, ripping himself off here, since Monty’s rant was clearly inspired by the sequence in Do the Right Thing where, one after the other, characters look at the camera and spew out torrents of racist insults. But while the scene in Do the Right Thing was meant to illuminate the savagery lurking within all of us, 25th Hour is after something else. In place of generic slurs, Monty offers a kind of caricatured ethnography of the city, replete with the kind of carefully observed detail only a real New Yorker would know. And what becomes clear is that Monty is not really talking about all these things that he hates about New York. He’s talking about all the things he loves about it (even if they’re just the things he loves to hate about it), all the things he will never see once he’s in Sing-Sing. That’s why Monty ends his tirade by saying to his own reflection, “No, fuck you,” and then lacerating himself for having thrown his life away. He’s the loser, not that guy on the West Fourth Street court who won’t pass the ball.

The rant is, as more than a few critics have said, a bravura set-piece. Brilliant as it is, though, there’s a glaring problem with Monty’s monologue. Along with the Korean shopkeepers and Russian mobsters, Monty also blasts greedy corporate executives—including the guys who ran Enron—before going off on Osama Bin Laden and his cave-dwelling Islamic fundamentalists. Unfortunately, while it’s satisfying to hear Monty say what so many of us have been thinking about Dennis Kozlowski and Mullah Omar, the attack on the villains of the moment ends up destroying the logic of the tirade.

As David Denby of The New Yorker put it, Monty’s harangue is “a perverse love letter to the life he’s about to leave.” But it’s safe to say Monty doesn’t want to pen mash notes—perverse or otherwise—to Osama Bin Laden. Monty may or may not want the Puerto Ricans to go fuck themselves. But that’s exactly what he wants Ken Lay and Dennis Kozlowski to do. And while he knows he’ll miss the Bensonhurst thugs when he’s in Sing-Sing, he wouldn’t blink an eye if Bin Laden and his followers were annihilated. When, at the end of his rant, Monty says “No” to his own attacks, we can’t believe he’s taking back what he said about the execs and the fundamentalists. So, we’re just left with confusion, which is only magnified by the film’s coda, where Monty—on his way to prison—sees the smiling faces of all the people he had said he despised. All the people, that is, except for the CEOs and the members of al-Qaida.

In one sense, the monologue’s collapse into incoherence isn’t too surprising since Lee has always seemed more interested in provocation than intellectual consistency (often to great effect). But the inclusion of the villains du jour also seems to reflect a curious lack of confidence in the value of Monty’s story (white drug dealer gets busted and is terrified of going to prison). It’s as if Lee thought that after Sept. 11, just hearing some guy ramble about the New York street wouldn’t be enough. You had to throw in Enron and Bin Laden for people to care. And, of course, Lee is operating under the burden of being one of America’s only “political” filmmakers. The torn-from-the-front-pages commentary is an easy way of letting us know the movie’s a Spike Lee joint. This also helps explain the repeated references in the film to 9/11, which is not the unspoken backdrop that it is for most New Yorkers, but rather a looming, symbolic presence (though what it’s supposed to symbolize remains rather unclear).

What’s frustrating about all this is just how unnecessary it is. Far from being flimsy or lightweight, Monty’s attempt to prepare himself for prison and to say goodbye to the city he loves is enormously powerful and seems tailor-made for the movies. It doesn’t need overwrought parallels with the toppling of the World Trade Center or the reconstruction of downtown to merit our attention. And Lee is too accomplished a director, and his movies seethe with too much energy, for him to believe that he needs to weigh down everything he does with explicit political references for it to matter. When the 25th Hour DVD comes out, Lee should take the phrase “Director’s Cut” seriously and chop Monty’s rant down to the size it was always meant to be.