About Time 

Minutes count in The Hours and 25th Hour.

The premise of The Hours was a little intimidating to me before I saw the film: Three women are linked through three time periods to Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway. I was concerned that my blazing ignorance of Ms. Woolf's work, and this one in particular, would hinder my enjoyment of the film and my ability to understand it. Not so. Yes, Mrs. Dalloway is at the heart of this film and at the root of the three stories presented, but everything you need to know is in the film. This is it, basically: Mrs. Dalloway decides one morning -- the morning of a party she is throwing -- that she will buy the flowers herself. Though she projects the appearance of togetherness and cheer, she is a lonely, empty woman inside. Oh, and someone dies at the end. That's it.

In The Hours, we meet three women. First is Virginia herself (Nicole Kidman), and our introduction comes in the form of her 1941 suicide at age 59. A feminist Ophelia, she places a stone in her dress pocket, walks into a nearby stream, and lets it carry her away. Her brief, mortal stroll is voiced-over by her suicide letter, which explains to her husband that this act of desperation is to spare him the madness she feels is returning. The rest of her story takes place in 1923 as Mrs. Dalloway is working its way out of her.

Flashing forward to 1951, we see Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), depressed housewife of WWII veteran Dan (John C. Reilly) and mother of a young son. It's Dan's birthday, and Laura, in the middle of reading Mrs. Dalloway, decides that she will feel better today and bake a cake.

Cut to 2001, and publisher Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) is preparing a reception for author and friend (and long-ago lover) Richard (Ed Harris). Richard has just won a prestigious poetry award but is too ill from AIDS and related dementia to want to go to the party.

Each of these women is depressed. Each awakes and acquires flowers. Each has something special going on that day -- a party of sorts. Each of these women kisses another woman. They all face suicide, and they all face the choice between death and the imprisonment of life. They each make a choice. The variations on these choices, while sometimes disorienting, are exactingly faithful to each other. Sometimes they reveal themselves suddenly, consecutively. Other times they surface gradually, inconspicuously. Like Philip Glass' subtle, driving score, they build gracefully from a whisper into a cry and by film's end find themselves whispering again.

The Hours is a miracle of a movie. Literate, involving, active -- it is that rare film about women and their unique experiences that neither excludes nor condemns the role of men in their lives. The men of The Hours, Woolf's stoic and supportive husband (Stephen Dillane), Brown's husband and son, poet Richard and his former lover Louis (Jeff Daniels) -- the sexual politics of the film are sometimes scattered but fascinating -- are innocent bystanders who, while making decisions to maintain or find their own happiness, neither victimize nor devalue these unhappy women. Their depressions are unto themselves, and their lives entrap them in ways that their respective others cannot assist or understand.

All of the performances in this film are excellent and uniquely extraordinary. Kidman, unrecognizable behind a prosthetic nose, does more refined work here than I have ever seen from her. Her Woolf is depressed but never pitiful and always strong whatever the hardship. Moore, playing a very different '50s housewife from her Far From Heaven turn, gets it just right. In the midst of true depression, something as simple as baking a cake becomes an overwhelming, impossible task. Moore's battle with the cake is heartbreakingly sorrowful when she fails, yet somehow sadder when she gets it right. Streep, meanwhile, shows us again why she is Streep -- equally profound unraveling before the party and, in a devastating scene at the end, as she just listens to a voice from the past that puts things into perspective.

Sad, but never far from hope, The Hours is one of the finest films of recent memory.

Spike Lee's 25th Hour begins with several nighttime cityscapes of Manhattan. As the film's haunting, almost tribal musical score swells, we see ghostly blue lights emanating and converging from or to the city in a series of variously obscured configurations and angles. This serves as an eerie, sobering prologue of both hope and doom as the camera gradually secures itself to a recognizable perspective on its subject: the place where the World Trade Center used to be and the two memorial light beams that, for a time, reached heavenward as a tribute to the fallen of September 11th.

When we first see Monty Brogan (Fight Club's Edward Norton), he's interrupting a drug run to save a wounded, abused dog found on the side of the road. Monty decides to take him to an emergency vet and keep him -- despite the pooch's frightened, toothy protests. This moment with the dog, juxtaposed with the opening skyline footage, prepares us for, essentially, two films in one about New York: a film in which the city is rebuilt and one in which an inhabitant confronts his own destruction.

Next scene: Daytime now and Monty quietly, decisively walks his new dog through some of his old neighborhood haunts. Something is changed about Monty; he is reflective now, deliberate. Monty's been caught and is on his way to jail -- tomorrow, that is. For now, he has one last day of freedom before beginning a seven-year prison term for drug dealing. And he's going to spend it the way he wants. This includes a few necessary stops and activities. Among them: a last dinner with Dad (Brian Cox, the original Hannibal Lecter from Manhunter), a going-away party thrown by his gratefully unimplicated distributor, Nikolai, and attended by his two uneasy best friends, Wall Street shark Frank (Barry Pepper) and frumpy high school teacher Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and a few last moments with his beautiful girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson).

I hope I'm not spoiling the plot by reporting that this is not a thriller. 25th Hour is instead a patient, thoughtful meditation on the ephemeral opportunity within limited time. What would you do with your last 25 hours of freedom before spending 61,320 of them in the hell of incarceration? The mind boggles at the infinity of things you can't do in jail, and 25 hours would offer scarce time to even brush the highlights. What does Monty do? He quietly, tidily wraps things up, prepares his family and friends for his departure, and comes to terms with the person responsible for putting him away: himself. In fact, the most fascinating scene is a dialogue between Monty and a mirror in which he condemns just about every possible minority as complicit in his situation. The result is at once funny and unnerving.

25th Hour is strongest when it focuses on Monty and how he deals with his impending detention. We are spared the trial and most of the nasty legal business, which, frankly, would detract from the strength of the film's meditative flow. But there's an awful lot of flow. Running two hours and 14 minutes, 25 hours seems like an eternity. Lengthy subplots are introduced, developed, and discarded with no particular narrative value derived from them. One subplot follows Jacob's crush on one of his students -- Oscar winner Anna Paquin -- who ends up at the same nightclub and compromises essential teacher/student boundaries. Also, Monty has doubts about whether it was Naturelle who turned him in. A tighter film would make this more important; here, it comes and goes and doesn't seem to bother Monty too much until the truth is revealed.

It's hard to appreciate the depth of the film's insights amid all the grandstanding, apocalyptic WTC imagery, and parallels drawn between Monty's deserved sentence and the triumphant New York spirit. They don't gel. Also, it is difficult to tell whether drug-dealing is being romanticized or disparaged. The lifestyle is made very attractive, and getting caught seems to be the biggest mistake -- not the dealing. No matter. Good performances all around keep things interesting, if not as compellingly as unsubtle director Lee would have it. n

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