Summer Of Sam

on July 02, 1999 by Wade Major
   Like so many of Spike Lee's films, "Summer of Sam" is both beguiling and confounding, an enigmatic blend of banality and brilliance that ultimately manages to overcome its myriad shortcomings through nothing but the sheer force of Lee's visionary direction.
   Set during the incendiary New York summer of 1977, when "Son of Sam" serial killer David Berkowitz terrorized an city already besought by record temperatures, the film is essentially Lee's attempt to snapshot a specific time and place, capturing the paranoia and anxiety that destroys lives and relationships in a small Bronx neighborhood. That the film chooses to focus on the intangible psychological by-products of fear rather than Berkowitz himself is a strange yet compelling choice that liberates Lee to indulge his penchant for prolonged character studies.
   Lee spends a surfeit amount of time on Vinny, a philandering hairdresser with an insatiable sexual appetite that threatens his marriage to the forlorn Dionna (Mira Sorvino). Only slightly less undisciplined is the group's spiritual leader, a drug-dealing palooka named Joe T (Michael Rispoli) who turns the neighborhood upside-down with his list of possible "Sam" suspects. At the top of the list is Vinny's friend Ritchie (Adrien Brody), a "Guido-turned-punker" who moonlights as a gay sex performer and porn actor, eventually pulling the seductive Ruby (Jennifer Esposito) in with him. Elsewhere, the likes of Bebe Neuwirth, Patti LuPone, Anthony LaPaglia and Ben Gazzara all appear to liven up the cast and add weight to the proceedings.
   While Lee has been faulted in the past for indulging Italian-American stereotypes, here he proves a veritable saving grace, single-handedly transforming the script's ham-fisted archetypes into complex, three-dimensional characters. There are, unfortunately, deeper problems with the script (written by Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli, rewritten by Lee) that are not so easily resolved. The structure is haphazard, events unspool sporadically and scenes frequently drag on interminably. At the same time, Lee's feeling for the material, as expressed through his usual visual pyrotechnics, is undeniably effective, powerfully communicating the debauchery and malice with which Bronx society of the era was consumed.
   If "Summer of Sam" isn't yet the masterpiece that the world has so long awaited from Lee, it is a surprisingly seductive misfire--an awkwardly brave and provocative work of sufficient originality to make it more than marginally recommended. Starring John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino, Jennifer Esposito, Michael Rispoli and Michael Badalucco. Directed by Spike Lee. Written by Victor Colicchio, Michael Imperioli and Spike Lee. Produced by Jon Kilik and Spike Lee. A Buena Vista release. Drama. Rated R for strong graphic violence and sexuality, pervasive strong language and drug use. Running time: 142 min
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