Spike Lee’s latest joint is one of his most ambitious efforts so far, a film which bites off a great deal more than it manages to chew – though when it does chew, it chews with vigor.
Lee established himself as an accomplished and original stylist with his third feature, Do the Right Thing (1989), a polemical fable well suited to his ironic-rhetorical approach – hard truths embedded in a nearly expressionist mise-en-scène. But of his eight following films, the most confident and effective – Malcolm X (1992) and Clockers (1994) – were "found" narratives, other people’s stories. Left to develop his own scenarios, with or without collaboration, Lee tended to fall back on the easy outs of vignette and cliché, making movies with virtuoso passages that don’t quite hang together.
Summer of Sam is set in 1977 in New York City – largely in the Bronx – during that period when the serial killer David Berkowitz, aka Son of Sam, was on his murderous spree. Most of the film takes place in an Italian-American milieu, focusing on the relationship between the womanizing hairdresser Vinny (John Leguizamo) and his long-suffering wife Dionna (Mira Sorvino). Vinny has swallowed the dichotomous Madonna-whore view of women whole and it’s choking him. He suffers guilt from his infidelities but feels driven to do things with other women which one simply can’t do with one’s wife.
Vinny hangs out with his comically brutish wise guy friends, the most distinctive being Richie (Adrien Brody), who has decided to become a punk rocker complete with spike haircut and faux British accent. Richie has a secret life as a male prostitute, which takes the film down the path of one of a handful of subplots that never develop – another subplot involves Ben Gazzara, underused in the role of a local don. The banter among the friends starts out as a humorous counterpoint to Vinny and Dionna’s emotional turmoil, but as the Son of Sam begins to lodge himself into everybody’s psyche, paranoia creeps into the conversation and ugly accusations are made.
Though the film is almost 2 1/2 hours long, the expected panorama of a city in fear never arrives. Instead we get inserts of TV news broadcasts and some terribly miscalculated scenes with Berkowitz himself (Michael Badalucco) who seems, at times, a comic figure. Then it’s back to the tribulations of Richie and Dionna and, as watchable as the two actors are, by their third protracted argument the audience is playing a waiting game.
It’s a tribute to Lee that we’re willing to wait, knowing that we’ll be rewarded with some energetic set pieces, but still it’s a film of parts – meandering, messy, intermittently entertaining.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].