Summer of Sam. Spike Lee’s disjointed pastiche of the summer of ’77 in NYC fails on just about every level. Still, because of the nature of Lee’s failures (they tend to be interesting and sometimes spectacular failures), there are worse bad films you could go rent.
NYC in the summer of the Son of Sam is a hot, violent, steamy, stupid place, populated by an unfaithful, disco hairdresser (John Leguizamo), his confused and sexually unsatisfied wife (Mira Sorvino), loose trash from the Queens neighborhood that serves as our setting (Jennifer Esposito), an Italian kid getting into the punk scene (Adrian Brody), a mob boss (irascible Ben Gazarra, who just died, RIP), a local cop who came from the streets (Anthony LaPaglia), Leguizamo’s sharp tongued paramour and boss (Bebe Neuwirth), a bunch of Lee’s standard Italian thugs, and of course, David Berkowitz (Daniel Badalucco from TV’s “The Practice”) who is going stark raving mad and taking it out on everyone else by shooting them.
Lee’s first mistake is his attempt to capture the milieu of too many totems of ’77 NYC. So we get the Queens disco, punk haven CBGB, Plato’s Retreat, Studio 54, Yankee Stadium, the looting. It’s all too much, too scattershot, and in trying to depict so many hallmarks of the time, it feels rushed and inauthentic. (Boogie Nights stands in sharp contrast in that it conveyed a convincing feel of late 70s, early 80s LA without having to take you on a Map of the Stars – Burt Reynolds’ backyard pool party was quite enough).
It’s a minor problem, as it turns out, because Lee’s characters – to a person – are uninteresting morons. Leguizamo is a conflicted Lothario with a bad case of the madonna-whore complex – he can nail anything in heels but his wife, with whom he must couple both quickly and without fanfare. That we have to suffer this semi-believable inadequacy in the late swingin’ 70s (repeatedly, as Lee cannot get enough of long, boring arguments between Sorvino and Leguizamo) is unfortunate. That Leguizamo is the main character, and emotes his fu**in’ love for his wife, his fu**in’ confusion, and his fuc**n’ fear of that fu**in’ Son of fu**in’ Sam, is excruciating. Worse, Leguizamo’s character lapses into drug abuse. The actor takes the opportunity to vomit all over his shoes in expressing his confusion and angst.
No one else is much better. Sorvino is dull and whiny as a wife who tries to please her husband and then gets fed up – no, make that fuc**n’ fed up. Brody, who was just another Italian goombah in the neighborhood, now sports a dog collar and spiked hair. He is forgettable, mainly because Lee never gives him a chance to explain why he changed, what about punk rock has transformed him in both spirit and style. He is bisexual, gets cash for having sex with men, dances at a gay strip house and does porno. And if he’s angry, he’ll smash a glass against his own forehead. Why? No real reasons are given for Brody’s anger. It seems that he does these things merely because it is hot in NYC.
Naturally, the Italian toughs – looking to keep the streets safe from Sam – decide that Brody is the killer. And that is the story.
There are cultural false notes as well. For example, Brody digs punk and articulates that The Who are his discovery. Anyone into punk rock in ’77, however, would have found The Who much too radio and establishment. You can tell that Lee just wanted to use the band’s anthems (he does so twice) in the movie, so presto, The Who become a punk icon. Additionally, when Brody’s band plays at CBGB, they are much too polished and pop to be a convincing 1977 punk act. Finally, Lee casts himself as a television reporter, which makes for painful watching (let’s just say Lee’s elocution is closer to Gerry Cooney than Max Robinson – he could not have gotten job announcing winners at a race track, much less being the “man on the street” for a local NYC station).
Other problems: Lee clumsily injects race into the mix in a street interview with black residents of Bed-Sty. Specifically, Lee allows the rant of one woman, who screams that the greatest race war ever would have ensued had the Son of Sam been black. She then chides Lee’s reporter character for acting white. The effect is unintentionally laugh out loud, because no matter the film, you feel Lee’s childish compulsion to sacrifice story for slogan.
In the end, Summer of Sam struck me as oddly subversive. You get the sense that Lee is most sympathetic to Berkowitz, who spends his days screaming at a neighbor to muzzle a barking dog (this same dog was the one who told him to kill, kill, and kill again). But the sum of Lee’s picture is creepy: given all the characters of NYC in that muggy summer of ’77, no wonder Berkowitz started shooting people. You loathe them, and Lee makes you complicit in empathy for Berkowitz (at least, you figure, I can get a break from these dimwits if he gets back to the killer).
So why see it? Lee is a gifted director who is crippled mainly because he has no real feel for story. Of his films, only two stand out – Crooklyn and Clockers – the latter because the reminisces of childhood in Brooklyn lend themselves to film by disconnected vignette, and the former because it was built solidly on the work of Richard Price. Like He Got Game, Summer of Sam is a mess, but interspersed in the carnage (and there is plenty of that, by the way, because Lee chooses to lovingly film almost every grisly shooting) are well-realized visions. Included are a montage of the characters’ summers to The Who’s “Teenage Wasteland” a smart dance scene between Sorvino and Leguizamo, and the recurrent pan shot of a tormented Berkowitz who spells his maniacal rants on his walls, with children’s blocks, and in conversation with a barking dog. Lee captures these, and many other moments, with ingenious motion (his strong suit) and smart editing.
Unfortunately, as usual, his skill cannot overcome an inane script, a corral of overactors and his own excesses.