Starring: John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino, Jennifer Esposito, Michael Rispoli, Michael Badalucco
Rated R for Strong Graphic Violence and Sexuality, Pervasive Strong Language and Drug Use
Like many flawed movies, it is easy to see what “Summer of Sam” was trying to do. It is also easy to see where it failed and why. What Spike Lee wants “Summer of Sam” to be is a mix of an intense, gritty film filled with claustrophobia and paranoia. What it actually is, is a rather lifeless movie with no atmosphere about characters we don’t care about.
Summer 1977. Brooklyn is terrorized by a serial killer who shoots people at random. The police are helpless and residents are terrified. But that’s just background. “Summer of Sam” is only tangentially related to the search for the killer. Instead, it concentrates on the actions of a large group of people in a Brooklyn neighborhood. Vinny (Leguizamo) is a hairdresser and is married to the lovely Dionna (Sorvino), although he is unfaithful to her. His friend Richie (Brody) has discovered punk rock and adopted a new hairdo and wardrobe (much to the alarm of the neighborhood) and is dating the neighborhood floozy, Ruby (Esposito). After narrowly missing being murdered by the .44 Caliber Killer, aka Son of Sam, aka David Berkowitz (Badalucco), he resolves to remain faithful to Dionna, although that doesn’t last long. On the other hand, Richie and Ruby grow closer. Meanwhile, just about everyone is looking for the killer. Two cops (played by Anthony LaPaglia and Roger Guenveur Smith) enlist the help of the neighborhood mob boss Luigi (Ben Gazzara) to help with the search. That leads one of his underlings Joey T (Rispoli) to do so as well with his lunkheaded flunkies.
That’s a lot of set-up, but it’s ultimately pointless. Or at least it feels like it. Despite some solid acting, particularly by a pre-famous Adrien Brody, the characters are boring. I didn’t feel much for Vinny, Dionna, or anyone else. That’s a problem, since in order for a movie to raise the adrenaline, they have to get the audience to care about the people in the film. Perhaps this is because they weren’t the original antagonists. The focus was originally going to be Berkowitz, but his victims’ families complained because they feared Hollywood glorification.
Also lacking is a sense of atmosphere. In an attempt to heighten the film’s tense foundation, Lee doesn’t soft-pedal the violence or the sex (two minutes had to be cut in order to avoid an NC-17), but it’s unsuccessful. The film looks generic; the script makes a big deal about the killings and the heat wave, but it’s the director’s job to make the audience feel that. Lee proves to be unable to rise to the challenge. Lee is also prone to inserting fantasy sequences and bizarre camera tricks (sometimes Lee shows us something only to reverse and show what really happened…and it’s usually a minor event), but all it does is make him seem like an Oliver Stone wannabe.
Lee’s decision to have Berkowitz onscreen presents more problems than it’s worth. For one thing, it increases the running time to the point where it feels like it will never end (“Summer of Sam” feels like a very long 2.5 hours). Second, it decreases the tension. Movies that concentrate on the fear of violence (slasher movies, for example), work best when the threat is off-screen. Consider “The Blair Witch Project,” which never showed the villain. I'd also point out that the film takes the point of view that Berkowitz was ordered to kill by his neighbor's dog (a story that he recanted), but since the film takes place in the here and now, I'll let it slide (the scene where the dog talks is unintentionally funny, however, and that I won't let slide).
It is also problematic for the film’s ending. Not only is it dragged out longer than it needs to be by showing nearly every single moment of Berkowitz’s capture, but it makes some characters seem comically stupid. Without giving too much away, I will say that the dramatic underpinning of it relies on what they think they know, but by showing who Berkowitz is, we know they’re wrong. As a result, the characters become so stupid that they’re impossible to take seriously. Add to that overhyped violence that ends in a cheat, and you’ve got a lame movie that can’t even manage a good ending.
I will admit that movies like this are difficult to make. It is much easier to make a movie where you show the violence. It’s easier to go for that easy gratification, and it can be effective. But to get the audience to feel the threat of violence, to feel that paranoia, is a rare thing. I’ll give Lee credit for the attempt, but he misses the mark, and by quite a bit.