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of Sam (1999)
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 looters 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. Its 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 whos wracked by guilt
for cheating on his wife, Dionna (Mira Sorvino). His friend, Ritchie (Adrien Brody, who
steals the movie), arouses the neighborhoods 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 Ritchies unconventional lifestyle, falls in love with him.
body-count grows higher, the characters grow progressively madder. The rivets blow, one by
one, out of Vinny and Dionnas marriage. Ritchie, whos been turning tricks in
the strip club, cant 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 Vinnys former lover
for tips about his sexual proclivities, is a quiet smash due to Sorvinos 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 were given raucous peeks
inside CBGB, Studio 54, and Platos 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 didnt think you liked black people," she
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 were going to experience
the citys panic from a variety of social perspectives. But the capo has fewer
answers than the cops do, and anyway hes a part of the neighborhood. So all of the
characters view the killings from the street level, which is the one level that were
already familiar with. Similarly, Vinnys drama doesnt feel connected to the
citys larger meltdown. When he does his Judas act at the end, its because
hes lost his wife and hes doing too much coke. Hed 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. Vinnys initial dilemma hes 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.
Lees 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, Lees writing has a fragile circularity in which his
characters explain themselves in rambling, fragmented speeches that obsessively return to
the point thats foremost in their minds. Such scenes depend on the dialogues
internal rhythms and on our being able to focus on the characters behavior. But as
hes 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 Houstons Dont Leave Me This Way.)
Its 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
- Tom Block