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Summer of Sam

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: Summer of Sam

Starring: Adrien Brody, John Leguizamo
Director: Spike Lee
Rated: R
RunTime: 142 Minutes
Release Date: July 1999
Genres: Drama, Suspense




Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

You'd need an awful lot of fingers and toes to count the number of times that movie villains are thwarted by explaining their motives. In the James Bond series, the typical miscreant might say, "Welcome, Mr. Bond. In a few moments you will be propelled to your fiery end. Try to avoid the heat and a pleasant journey to you." Minutes later, 007 frees himself and gets the drop on the scoundrel. In "The Mummy," the title character might have plunged his knife immediately into the heart of Evelyn the librarian but takes the time to announce his motives, giving O'Connell the opportunity to send him back to his sarcophagus. Even in the delightful children's movie "Shiloh 2," Judd, a lonely, unloved drunk, announces, "You haven't heard the last of me, Ray Preston," giving the congenial dad all the warning he needs to keep his distance from the rascal. Far scarier is the psychopath who kills without warning, without giving the victim the slightest chance to talk him out of his deed, to get help, to get the drop. No wonder, then, that David Berkowitz, the so-called son-of-Sam killer, terrorized entire neighborhoods in New York City's outer boroughs in 1977. He simply walked up to his victims and shot them. Ultimately Berkowitz, whose deeds conferred on a man the title of serial killer for the first time, gave himself away just like the knaves in the movies--by taunting the good guys and ultimately by a careless mistake that led to his capture. Before his apprehension, though, his random, unproclaimed acts of mayhem forced people to barricade themselves into their homes at night, even driving some women to dye their hair blonde to appease the killer, whose insistent target was brunettes.

The son of Sam's executions have a somewhat different effect on a group of 20-something Italian Americans living in an ethnic ghetto in the Bronx. This band of alienated young people do not display the usual signs of anxiety. Not for them the locking down, the defensive barricading so favored by potential victims. Displaying some of the same macho traits of hatred as the killer himself, the pack of largely racist, homophobic toughs use the apprehension of the community as an excuse to trounce and intimidate those they loath. They direct their aggression particularly against a despairing punk rocker, who has just been thrown out of his apartment by his parents (in the film's most comic moment), and who makes extra money turning tricks and acting in porno flicks. Building up a specious case against him like a modern band of holy inquisitors, they vent their spleen against the innocent but flawed young man in much the way that Berkowitz releases his frustration through multiple murders.

Director and co-writer Spike Lee, a frequent critic of Hollywood's attitude toward black filmmakers--who is known for his credo that only blacks should direct movies about African-Americans--veers off in an unusual direction with the making of "Summer of Sam." His first film without a single major black character, "Sam" proves that you don't have to be a white director to make a compelling movie about white people. Though an occasional racist epithet receives voice in this film, the black experience is strictly in the background, giving Lee the opportunity to hone in primarily on Italian- Americans--a group toward which he had shown particular interest in his "Jungle Fever"--about the sexual relationship between an African-American man and an Italian-American woman. Reminiscent of Lee's 1989 look at Brooklyn's leading black community in "Do the Right Thing"--wherein the forty-two-year old director took a close look at individuals amid a racial incident involving Italian-American pizza vendors--"Sam" is more a collage of events than a unified drama. Its disjointed nature is likely, more than any other factor, to generate some negative reviews and less-than-enthusiastic audience response. But Lee is so entertaining in his mixture of comedy, domestic strife and police drama that for the most part his discontinuous production works. Moving along briskly enough and more than occasionally highlighting the torments of dysfunctional people, "Summer of Sam" succeeds in furnishing a period's pain to the screen, a time in New York that tempers were on edge from the hundred-plus degree heat, a blackout that brought devastation to local neighborhoods and the apprehension wrought by a menacing psychopathic killer.

The story begins on a promising note. In place of the usual long array of credits, Lee puts tough-talking journalist and author Jimmy Breslin in the forefront, as the steetwise reporter ticks off an introduction to a time more dangerous than the present in the city that he knows, loves, and hates so well. After briefly introducing a ragtag bunch of ne'er-do-wells, Breslin puts the spotlight on Vinny (John Leguizamo) and his slinky wife Dionna (Mira Sorvino). Disco and punk are au courant in 1977, and womanizing is in fashion as ever. The perpetually horny Vinny is so compulsive in his sexuality that at one point he excuses himself from his wife on the dance floor to grab what he can from a neighborhood bimbo in his car. During this year, Ritchie (Adrien Brody), a friend of Vinny, gives in to the punk style--adding spikes to his hair style, effecting a Cockney accent, and taking up with Ruby (Jennifer Esposito) while making some extra money dancing in a low-life gay bar.

"Summer of Sam" does best when Lee focuses on the daily rounds of his pitiful group of toughs, subtly indicating the loneliness and poverty of imagination that inform their lives. When they hang out, they don't discuss the latest trends on Broadway, the state of the movies, or the quality of their careers. Their batteries are charged only when they exchange wholly unproved conspiracy theories and particularly when they gang up, intimidate, and beat those who do not look, act, or talk like them. Far from feeling genuine fear of the serial killer, they are invigorated by accounts of his horrific deeds. Berkowitz's killings give the gang all the justification they need to carry out a campaign of villification against those who do not fit in with their life-styles. By contrast, the director is least effective in showing Berkowitz himself. As played by Michael Badalucco--who resembles the real-life killer only in his ample weight-- Berkowitz is seen almost literally climbing the walls of his seedy apartment, bouncing on his bed with rage while he is under the influence of a big black dog who apparently urges him to kill. (Appropriately enough, Berkowitz believes that the name of this satanic dog is Harvey.) The film does not paint a convincing portrait of the police, who are guided by Luigi (Ben Gazarra), going all-out to capture the elusive slayer. Lee seems almost to be telling us to ignore the details of son of Sam's killings in order to focus almost wholly on the gang. Lee's portrayal of the relationship between Vinny and Dionna and on the tortured psyche of Ritchie easily form the story's most compelling segments. John Leguizamo, known by cognoscenti mainly for his comic roles in the stage monologues "Freak" and "Spic-O-Rama" is equally effective in his dramatic capacity here, keeping the sparks flying in his link with his wife, played by Mira Sorvino--who never looked more provocative. Sorvino has her audience hissing each time she forgives her husband's trespasses, ultimately cheering when she gives up on the hopeless creep. Adrien Brody's portrayal of Ritchie again demonstrates this young actor's depths, heretofore on best display in his starring role in "Ten Benny."

Whether this artistic accomplishment will translate well at the box office remains to be seen. The film is thoroughly urban, bound to grip the enthusiasm of big-city dwellers everywhere, while at the same time likely to convince conflicted suburbanites that perhaps they did the right thing by moving out. "Summer of Sam" is about as subtle as Jimmy Breslin. With loud music and upfront posturing, it makes for an entertaining, powerful experience at the movies.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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