Friday July 2, 1999
"Summer of Sam" is shorthand for New York City in the unbearably hot summer of 1977, when a serial killer known as Son of Sam terrorized the city and inspired state-of-the-art tabloid headlines such as "Killer to Cops: I'll Do It Again."
That summer, director/co-writer Spike Lee informed the media, has always held special meaning for him: It was when he decided to become a director and bought his first Super-8 camera. But despite both that personal connection and Lee's considerable filmmaking skills (this is, after all, his 13th feature), "Summer of Sam" is a glum and unpleasant experience, caught between what it wants to do and how it has chosen to do it.
Parents of Son of Sam's victims as well as the still-incarcerated murderer himself (real name David Berkowitz, who pleaded guilty in 1978 to six killings) have complained about having those long-ago horrors exploited on film, but "Summer of Sam" is not really about the killings per se. Rather, the Victor Colicchio, Michael Imperioli and Spike Lee script tries to use that crisis in the city to show the effect the chaotic 1970s, with its strong counterculture and pervasive sexuality, had on the mores of conventional society.
To tell this larger story, "Summer of Sam" concentrates on a staunchly Italian American neighborhood in the Bronx where some of the killings took place and more particularly on two couples united by the close friendship between the men in each. Lee's choices seem natural, but they don't turn out to be very satisfying.
The center of the neighborhood, and of the film, is the husband-and-wife combination of Vinny (an energetic and convincing John Leguizamo) and Dionna (Mira Sorvino). Their dancing skill gives them the sheen of royalty in the flashy local disco, but the reality is that their marriage is in trouble even though Dionna doesn't know it yet.
For Vinny, employed as a hairdresser, is an incorrigible womanizer who sleeps with anyone who's willing and available. But when he realizes that one of his back-seat assignations has narrowly avoided making him one of Son of Sam's victims, Vinny takes it as a sign from God to straighten up. If he can.
While Vinny is very much of the neighborhood, his best friend Ritchie ("The Thin Red Line's" Adrien Brody) still lives there but is desperate to get away. A would-be punk who favors exaggerated hairdos and the occasional fake British accent, Ritchie puts on unusual (to say the least) one-man stage performances in Manhattan and bonds with Ruby (Jennifer Esposito), the neighborhood bad girl and fellow outcast.
All these crises get heightened and intensified because of the pressures and paranoia caused by the Son of Sam murders, which so terrifies the neighborhood that the discos stand empty and women rush to dye their hair blond when the rumor circulates that the killer is partial to brunets.
"Summer of Sam's" greatest success is in its ability (helped by Ellen Kuras' brooding cinematography) to re-create a gritty New York street feel. The film evokes the tensions and in-your-face bravado of a neighborhood where everyone has an attitude and acknowledging, let alone respecting, other people's feelings are ideas so alien they might as well come from Mars.
But though Lee and company can make the neighborhood convincing, they can't make it interesting. Uniformly white (the director plays one of the film's few persons of color, a superficial TV news reporter from Manhattan) and filled with never-gonna-grow-up lost boys who don't hesitate to call one of their number Bobby the Fairy, this is one dense, thick-headed neck of the woods.
Equally uninteresting are "Summer of Sam's" central couples. Outcasts Ritchie and Ruby, constructs created to make a point, never make the leap to real people. Even less appealing are Vinny and Dionna, whose shaky marriage is subjected to an unfortunate chance exposure to the sexual license of Plato's Retreat. As husband and wife curse and scream at each other, it's too exhausting to care whether this tedious, dysfunctional relationship survives or not.
Also shocking and disturbing is the considerable physical violence--both endemic to the neighborhood and created by Son of Sam--that overshadows everything. The problem is not that the film's beatings and killings are rough and raw, it's that it's hard to see what purpose they serve.
For as all "Summer of Sam's" key relationships disintegrate into betrayal, intolerance, stupidity and both physical and verbal beatings, it becomes increasingly difficult to tolerate the chaos, let alone figure out what to make of it. Lee is a powerful filmmaker who certainly knows how to have an impact on an audience, but those who survive his ministrations are likely to wonder if in this case the battle was worth the bruises.
Summer of Sam, 1999. R, for strong graphic violence and sexuality, pervasive strong language and drug use. A 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks Production, a Spike Lee Joint, released by Touchstone Pictures. Director Spike Lee. Producers Jon Kilik, Spike Lee. Executive producers Michael Imperioli, Jeri Carroll-Colicchio. Screenplay Victor Colicchio, Michael Imperioli and Spike Lee. Cinematographer Ellen Kuras. Editor Barry Alexander Brown. Costumes Ruth E. Carter. Music Terence Blanchard. Production design Therese DePrez. Art director Nicholas Lundy. Set decorator Diane Lederman. Running time: 2 hours, 16 minutes. John Leguizamo as Vinny. Adrien Brody as Ritchie. Mira Sorvino as Dionna. Jennifer Esposito as Ruby.