Summer of Sam

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In the summer of 1977, the City of New York underwent a massive nervous breakdown. A heat wave hit the city and broiled its citizens on the sidewalks. A power blackout created a looter’s wet-dream, and thousands were arrested as a result. The Yankees won a dramatic World Series. And the Son of Sam – in reality a cherubic postal worker named David Berkowitz – went on a murderous rampage that terrorized the boroughs.

In Summer of Sam, Spike Lee uses these events as the backdrop for another of his explorations of urban madness. It’s an ambitious – even a brilliant – idea. But after selecting this huge canvas for his work, Lee fills in only one corner of it by focusing on a handful of people who live in the Bronx neighborhood where Berkowitz committed most of his murders. Vinny (John Leguizamo) is a high-strung hairdresser who’s wracked by guilt for cheating on his wife, Dionna (Mira Sorvino). His friend, Ritchie (Adrien Brody, who steals the movie), arouses the neighborhood’s enmity by working in a male strip club and by joining the burgeoning punk-rock scene. Ruby (Jennifer Esposito) is a neighborhood girl who, unfazed by Ritchie’s unconventional lifestyle, falls in love with him.

As Sam’s body-count grows higher, the characters grow progressively madder. The rivets blow, one by one, out of Vinny and Dionna’s marriage. Ritchie, who’s been turning tricks in the strip club, can’t connect sexually with Ruby. A band of smalltime drug dealers is gradually transformed from a hapless Neighborhood Watch group into a lynch mob.

Summer of Sam has some wonderful stuff in it. One unlikely scene, in which Dionna asks Vinny’s former lover for tips about his sexual proclivities, is a quiet smash due to Sorvino’s balance of desperation and vulnerability. Later, to celebrate a quick fix of their marriage, Vinny and Dionna go out on the town, and in quick succession we’re given raucous peeks inside CBGB, Studio 54, and Plato’s Retreat. And Lee is hilarious in a cameo appearance as a deadpan TV reporter who recites all of the usual media platitudes about urban violence. (When he goes to Bedford Stuyvesant, one of his interviewees expresses surprise to see him there. "I didn’t think you liked black people," she tells him.)

Lee was probably wise not to lean too heavily on the details of the Berkowitz investigation, but the Summer of ’77 remains a mere backdrop in his movie. An early scene in which the stymied cops turn for help to a local mob chieftain (Ben Gazzara, in a ludicrously bad outing) makes us think that we’re going to experience the city’s panic from a variety of social perspectives. But the capo has fewer answers than the cops do, and anyway he’s a part of the neighborhood. So all of the characters view the killings from the street level, which is the one level that we’re already familiar with. Similarly, Vinny’s drama doesn’t feel connected to the city’s larger meltdown. When he does his Judas act at the end, it’s because he’s lost his wife and he’s doing too much coke. He’d be freaking out even without a serial killer on the loose.

Even worse, Summer of Sam gives us no clue why these people, who are so long on talk but so short on soul, are worthy of our attention. Vinny’s initial dilemma – he’s afraid to ask his wife for anal intercourse – tells you everything you need to know about the guy. And the gang of drug dealers is on screen for what seems like half the movie even though their mozzarella shtick is numbingly familiar the first time we lay eyes on them. Lee’s world is populated for the most part by pawns, not characters.

Lee sabotages his material by overloading it with splashy visual effects. (He and Oliver Stone must have a running bet about which of them can use the greatest number of different film stocks in a single movie.) And Lee is still drowning his scenes with background music. Like John Cassavetes’ work, Lee’s writing has a fragile circularity in which his characters explain themselves in rambling, fragmented speeches that obsessively return to the point that’s foremost in their minds. Such scenes depend on the dialogue’s internal rhythms and on our being able to focus on the characters’ behavior. But as he’s done at least since Jungle Fever, Lee swamps even the most delicate scenes with intrusive string arrangements or (worse) songs that comment on the action. (Dionna walks out on Vinny to Thelma Houston’s Don’t Leave Me This Way.)

It’s really too bad. Summer of Sam could have been something memorable, even monumental, in American film. It could have been the ultimate movie about urban pressures, and about the ’70s, and about the uncanny way that even the most pigheaded viewpoints survive in a melting pot. It could have been the American M., showing how one bad apple can infect every level of society. What a shame that Spike Lee, like David Berkowitz before him, decided to go on a rampage instead.

The difference is that Son of Sam did his dirty work with a .44 caliber revolver. Spike Lee does his with a sledgehammer.

– Tom Block