by Rob Gonsalves
Can a high-powered director triumph over a weak script? It's possible, I suppose, but most often improbable.In Summer of Sam, Spike Lee exhausts his bag of tricks, trying to keep the energy level up, and parts of the movie are affecting or exciting. But after a while you grow weary of being pelted with the director's pyrotechnics. It's like watching a stunningly edited and photographed video tour of one's own basement. The form is fine; it's the content that's missing. By the end, Lee seems to be blaring "Won't Get Fooled Again" just to keep himself, and us, awake.
"Spike flails around; frustrating experience."
The film begins on a corny note, with Jimmy Breslin addressing the camera and setting the scene: In the steamy summer of 1977, David Berkowitz, aka Son of Sam, lurked around New York City shooting lovers in their parked cars. The movie proper, after the prologue, starts compellingly enough to get one's hopes up. One hot dark night, with ABBA's cheerful "Fernando" playing on the radio, two attractive young women sit in their car chatting. They notice a hulking shape outside; seconds later, their brains are on the windshield. Spike Lee is great at the mood of dread and menace — the killer approaching from the shadows, the abrupt flash of violence, the sense that something ugly and unstoppable is out there in the dark, somewhere. New York in the summer of 1977 is a seething playground of sex and drugs and disco; suddenly a monster is loose in the playground, as if summoned by a wrathful god to keep sinners locked up in their homes.
Unfortunately, the film moves from there into a kaleidoscopic look at the people in the neighborhood and how the murders affect them; problem is, there are no people, just types. Spike Lee had originally intended to executive-produce the script by Michael Imperioli and Victor Colicchio; when he decided to direct it, he tweaked the script. He should've kept tweaking. The main characters, in terms of screen time, appear to be an unhappy married couple, Vinny and Dionna (John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino), and a punk-rocker, Ritchie (Adrien Brody), Vinny's old friend, who has been away from the neighborhood for a year and has now returned with spiky hair and a Johnny Rotten accent. Right away, the locals suspect Ritchie of being Son of Sam, even though the M.O. of any serial killer is to blend in, to walk among us unnoticed; the gaudy Ritchie does neither.
We spend entirely too much time with Vinny and Dionna, a bland pair with sexual hang-ups; he's cheating on her because he doesn't know how to ask her for the erotic favors he craves. Improbably, they find themselves at an orgy at Plato's Retreat, after which their relationship predictably goes south, in a naturalistic, Cassavetes-like series of arguments that seem to assume we take these two limited squabblers seriously. Meanwhile, Ritchie hooks up with the neighborhood pump Ruby (the underused Jennifer Esposito) and forms a punk-rock band, setting Berkowitz's psycho-poetry (as published in the New York Post) to grinding "music." During all this, a group of oafish Italians roam around making a list of suspects, and even the mob determines to catch the killer, as in Fritz Lang's M. There is more sex, more drugs, much fighting and posturing and paranoid finger-pointing. We don't really know why we're watching all of this.
As always, Lee works with a talented cast — he's one of those directors with the prestige and clout to lure top actors into reading from the phone book for peanuts — yet the fragmented structure works against them, and in any case, they're given very little to play except hysteria. Patti LuPone shows she's a good sport by letting herself fall out of her dress; Bebe Neuwirth grinds her body against Leguizamo's groin. The women are highly sexualized, the men hapless and borderline impotent (Vinny is popular with the ladies despite being a very quick come). Almost by default, the movie focuses on Vinny's struggles with Dionna and his conflicted feelings about his old friend Ritchie. Vinny swallows ludes and flails about, and I expected the script to take him to the edge of ultimate paranoia: thinking that he himself could be Son of Sam and not even realize it. The movie doesn't seem to think of that, and poor Leguizamo, chalky and pouring sweat, turns into a dinner-theater version of Ray Liotta near the end of GoodFellas. Leguizamo can be a loose, funny actor, but here he's straining too much for effects — much like his director.
Working with editor Barry Alexander Brown (who has cut many other Spike Lee joints) and cinematographer Ellen Kuras (Swoon, 4 Little Girls), Lee puts together an engaging pastiche of images. You never question that you're in the hands of a moviemaker who thinks with his eyes. Yet Lee can't seem to decide whether he's making a neighborhood portrait or a tabloid-flashy bit of exploitation — there are too many overdone scenes of Berkowitz (Michael Badolucco) freaking out in his ratty apartment like the villain of some squalid slasher flick, and Lee piles on the K-Tel oldies, often so loudly that we can't hear what the characters are saying.
Not that it makes much difference most of the time. Summer of Sam is the perfect New York companion piece to the L.A.-set Boogie Nights — it scampers around, never pausing long enough to allow any one character to gain purchase in our hearts. It's also overlong: at two hours and twenty-two minutes, this melodrama with its paper-thin characters and predetermined outcome puts considerable stress on our patience.A great movie could be made about a blistering New York summer that brings neighborhood tensions to a boil of violence. Spike Lee can make that movie; in fact, he already did, ten years ago. 'Summer of Sam' suffers in every conceivable way in comparison to 'Do the Right Thing,' and contrasting the two films proves what Spike Lee can do when he has his heart in the material and fire in his belly, and what he can't do when he doesn't.
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originally posted: 02/02/07 14:34:11