Before he passed away at the age of 46, Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in 52 feature films. Starring roles, character pieces, chameleon work—he left a legacy nearly unmatched in both quality and quantity. Now, with P.S.H. I Love You, Jonah Koslofsky wafts through the cornucopia of the man’s offerings.
At the risk of sounding melodramatic, the shadow of death hangs over P.S.H. I Love You. I’m only able to write about the entirety of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s filmography because the actor died far too young, at the age of 46. But lately, we’ve seen so many (beloved) celebrities pass too early. In January, Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash. In May, filmmaker Lynn Shelton passed away from a previously undiagnosed blood disorder. In July, Mythbusters host Grant Imahara suffered a brain aneurysm. He was 49. Then on Friday, August 28, Chadwick Boseman passed away. These deaths were shocking. I am still shocked.
Our existence is fragile business. What should we do when the world keeps reminding us?
Spike Lee’s 25th Hour may not provide a definitive answer, but it admirably wrestles with this existential uncertainty. Lee’s follow-up to the ever-inaccessible and underrated Bamboozled, the film marks another peak in auteur’s mountain range of a career. Written by Game of Thrones showrunner David Benioff and working with an incredible ensemble of actors and collaborators, Lee’s 2002 release was the first major motion picture to explicitly deal with the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks. We see a day – perhaps the last day – in the life of Monty Brogan (Edward Norton). He’s made a career out of dealing cocaine and heroin, a career that’s come to an abrupt end with the arrival of a pair of DEA agents and an incoming eight-year prison stint.
Actually, you should know all of this already from Tim Stevens’ fantastic write-up on the film, published on this very site back in March.
The relevance of 25th Hour has only blossomed after six months of lockdown. As Tim Stevens wrote, the breakthrough in Lee’s adaptation was to directly link Monty’s predicament with the nation’s shock and grief. The unthinkable has happened. The horizon holds uncertainty. What are we supposed to do next? Lee’s most iconic signature as a filmmaker are his dolly shots. His camera floats forward. The characters don’t look like they’re walking but pulled instead by some unseen force. Day-to-day life has taken on a similar feeling.
In Hour, Lee’s camera holds in front of Jacob Elinsky (Hoffman). He and Monty have been buddies since they went to high school at the same prestigious, preppy institution where Jacob now teaches English. Hoffman’s playing the type to assign Lolita without the good sense to stop himself from lusting after one of his students, Mary (Anna Paquin). And sure enough, at Monty’s “going away” party, Jacob bumps into Mary in a busy club.
Though he may be teaching at the Upper East Side equivalent of the school his character attended in Scent of a Woman, Hoffman’s in sheepish everyman mode. He leaves the blustering to the trio’s third member, stock trader Frank (Barry Pepper) – though Monty blusters too, especially in his unforgettable tirade in front of a bathroom mirror, in which he rages against every minority and demographic of the city that never sleeps.
The irony is that Monty’s “provocative” monologue marks the start of his acceptance of his own responsibility for his situation. On the other hand, when Jacob barges into a bathroom to kiss Mary in the crowded club, he’s missing the way his actions are about to destroy him.
Jacob’s side-story ends (a little too soon) with Lee’s dolly-shot escorting him away from the scene of the crime, Hoffman quietly and expertly playing a man sobered up by his own blunder. None of us are clean; while Jacob may not be a drug dealer, he’s no saint. Monty’s impending incarceration acts as sort-of a wake-up call for his loved ones. His friends and family all benefited from the dirty money he made, all aware of his actions. Then again, it’s not like this call to introspection stops Jacob from kissing one of his students.
I actually found 25th Hour quite affecting as a portrait of male friendship. Before the party, Jacob meets up with Frank at his apartment, and the pair talk through their mutual uncertainties and worries for Monty. They don’t know what to do. They don’t know what to say. Lee leaves both actors in a two-shot that gives both performers room to emote without obviously drawing your attention to either side of the screen. It’s simple, effective filmmaking.
Of course, as Stevens put it, Lee’s “never one for subtlety” — Frank’s apartment happens to literally overlook Ground Zero. We glimpse the symbol of death, the death of a symbol. Specifics of his politics aside, I’ve always found Lee’s work most moving when he taps directly into loss, anger, and sadness. These elements are still present, but 25th Hour finds the filmmaker gravitating more towards feelings of confusion and uncertainty, instead of seeking to shock his audience.
Unfortunately, Hoffman is again here to add texture to the work rather than actually play a fully-formed person. I find myself asking the same question as I did writing about Moneyball and Twister: Is it a waste of a great performer to rely on his adding depth to an underwritten part? If Hoffman makes us forget that Jacob lacks an arc, does it matter? As in Happiness, the actor keeps his character’s creepiness in check, and he doesn’t overdo his bumbling.
Lee knows how to get great performances out of his actors. In his latest, Da 5 Bloods, he cast Chadwick Boseman as a larger-than-life figure. Boseman easily lived up to the role; for all the praise he earned, perhaps we still took him for granted. Cataclysm could be just around the corner, or maybe it’s already here. No one knows what to do.