Summer of Sam

Review by Adam Blair

Directed by Spike Lee
Screenplay by Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli
Starring John Leguizamo, Mira Sorvino, Adrien Brody, Jennifer Esposito

Rated R, 142 minutes (1999)

Not that it needed proving, but Summer of Sam convincingly demonstrates Spike Lee's seemingly effortless command of film's vocabulary, as well as his ability (with numerous well-cast actors) to create vivid, involving characters. In this time of mostly timid, apolitical filmmaking, it also demonstrates his bravery in actually looking at Big Issues like violence, prejudice, hypocrisy and the distorting power of the media.

What Spike hasn't learned, or doesn't show here, is that a little restraint can go a long way, especially when you're portraying a time that was itself loaded with excess.

Summer of Sam takes place in the Fellini-esque New York City of 1977, when scorching heat, the volatile New York Yankees, a citywide blackout and the hunt for the .44 caliber killer, "Son of Sam," nearly exploded the old melting pot. Lee is masterful at re-creating the frenzy, fear and helplessness that the gunman - who preyed on young women, carried on an apocalyptic/psychotic correspondence with the tabloids and seemed to baffle the police - brought out in ordinary New Yorkers.

Son of Sam (convincingly wacko in Michael Badalucco's performance) is Lee's touchstone, an emblem of violence and craziness, but most of the film is taken up with characters from a tightly-knit, insular Bronx Italian neighborhood. John Leguizamo is marvelously intense as a philandering hairdresser, racked with guilt over his infidelities but too weak to change. Mira Sorvino is his suspicious, self-doubting wife, the victim of his Madonna/whore complex. Adrien Brody plays an incipient punk rocker affecting a British accent and some really bad hairdos, with an excellent Jennifer Esposito as a good-time girl willingly getting caught up in Brody's somewhat sleazy orbit.

They are also about a dozen other characters who fight, scream, curse, have sex, dance, drink, eat and fight some more. Lee pours on the marinara sauce pretty thick in portraying these Italians, and a lot of the characterizations cross the border into stereotypes. Some of the actors are strong enough to stand out nonetheless. Ben Gazzara, for instance, is the local Mafia don who, in a nod to Fritz Lang's classic M, where the city's criminal element work together to find the child murderer spooking the city, agrees to help the police find Son of Sam so that "regular" crime can continue.

More disturbing are the vigilante antics of Leguizamo's street buddies, whose efforts to create a list of neighborhood oddballs who could be the elusive Son of Sam reveal more about their fears and prejudices than their detective skills. One of these geniuses (who hang around by a Dead End sign - subtle, Spike) thinks Reggie Jackson is Son of Sam, because he wears number "44" on his Yankees pinstripes.

It would be funny if it weren't so scary. Lee seems to be saying that Berkowitz, crazy as he was, is only the most extreme example of how violent and cruel people can be. Nobody gets off the hook - not the mobs of people looting during the blackout nor the screaming crowds at Berkowitz's perp walk. They'd like his blood, but Lee stages it as if it's a rock concert and Son of Sam is the main attraction. He may be evil, nuts or both, but he's a celebrity.

Is it true? Are we only a heat wave and a crazed killer away from bad craziness? Powerful as the film is, I don't think it makes the case. It's stuffed with so much melodrama, so many dese-dem-dose Italians and gratuitous sex, that it's a little too easy to distance yourself from Summer of Sam's darker implications. Some editing, of the screenplay or the film itself (which runs almost two and a half hours) might have helped clarify things a bit. But maybe that would be a movie about the Guiliani-ized New York of 1999, a safe, clean, "nice" place. Summer of Sam isn't as strong as its implications, but it's a great picture of what New York has gained, and lost, in the last 22 years.

(This article originally appeared in Films in Review, www.filmsinreview.com)

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