Summer of Sam (1999)
Directed by Spike Lee
Cast: John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino, Ben Gazzara, Jennifer Esposito, Michael Rispoli, Bebe Neuwirth, Anthony LaPaglia, Mike Starr, Patti LuPone, Ken Garito, Brian Tarantino, Roger Guenveur Smith, Michael Badalucco, Spike Lee, Jimmy Breslin; voice of John Turturro.
1999 144 minutes
Rated: (for graphic violence, strong profanity, sex, nudity, and gore).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 3, 1999.
Spike Lee has always been an obviously talented director, creating inventive storytelling and technical techniques that have been nothing short of impressive. 1989's critically-heralded "Do the Right Thing" is still Lee's most praised work, but he has also made the successful likes of 1991's "Jungle Fever," 1992's "Malcolm X," 1994's "Crooklyn," and 1995's "Clockers." One of the downfalls in Lee's films that have been detected, however, is his unnecessary emphasis on sex and nudity when it has very little to do with the story at hand (for proof, just take a look at his frustratingly uneven 1998 drama, "He Got Game"), as if his only reason for adding these elements is simply because he can.
Spike Lee's latest opus, "Summer of Sam," marks a major turning point in his career because, with this picture, he has swayed away from his usual African-American characters to focus on a group of white Italian Americans, which was a vital decision in his evolution as a filmmaker. And, ultimately, this film's often extreme sex and nudity (which had to be slightly trimmed when the MPAA first stamped the film with an NC-17) serves a definite purpose when dealing with the characters' conflicts, invoking a certain place and time, and leads to one of the more powerful moments in this long-but-not-too-long 144-minute epic.
Set during the hottest summer on record in New York City, in 1977, while serial killer David Berkowitz, the .44-caliber killer, later titled the Son of Sam from a letter he sent to writer Jimmy Breslin, was going on a rampage, murdering primarily women with shoulder-length brown hair. The movie may be named after the Son of Sam, but he, as well as his grisly acts, pose as supporting characters. Instead, the film is about that fateful and memorable summer, when NYC was ablaze in hysteria due to the killings, and when many frightened women were getting blond wigs or getting their hair dyed. It was also the summer when, as already mentioned, there was an extreme heat wave, a city-wide blackout, and mass looting. Amidst all of this are the central characters, living in the Bronx. Vinny (John Leguizamo) is a hairdresser who, night after night, goes out with his sweet wife, Dionna (Mira Sorvino), to various night clubs to dance the night away. What Dionna does not know about Vinny is that he is a compulsive cheater, feeling the need to have sex with seemingly every woman he meets except his wife. When Son of Sam strikes within moments of him leaving an area where he was having a quickie with Dionna's cousin in a parked car, Vinny believes that he is next on the killer's hit list, and takes it as a sign to change his philandering ways and become a good, faithful husband again. This vow, indeed, proves more difficult than he anticipates. The other running story thread in the film deals with Vinny's best friend, Ritchie (Adrien Brody), who returns to his old neighborhood after living in Manhattan, but to the surprise of all of his old buddies, has taken up with the punk movement, complete with spiked hair and a leather dog collar around his neck. An amateur musician for his band called Late Term Abortion, Ritchie hooks up with the neighborhood slut, Ruby (Jennifer Esposito), and secretly begins to dance at a gay porn theater and make pornos for the extra money. When two police investigators approach a mob boss (Ben Gazzara) to help them search for the mysterious Son of Sam, he turns them down, but opts to rally up a group of his own friends to make a list of suspects, gradually narrowing them down to a select few.
"Summer of Sam," like some of the very best films (Robert Altman's incomparable 1975 masterpiece, "Nashville," comes quickly to mind), is a wildly ambitious motion picture overflowing with characters and stories, all of which are somewhat pawns in the grand scheme of things to vividly and accurately portray a certain place, this time that "place" being NYC in the summer of 1977. Aided by Spike Lee's fresh, assured direction, "Summer of Sam" is an electrifying, high-charged drama that is easily one of the most engrossing films I've seen thus far in 1999. Moving at a dizzying pace from one character and predicament to the next, the film only stops long enough to carefully observe the people's interactions with each other, and even then it has energy to spare.
Watching the film, you are not merely watching what is going on, but are practically put right in the middle of the horrifying chaos. The alternate desperation and fear that the characters are feeling, not only due to the Son of Sam but also from their own troublesome relationships, is always strongly palpable, and the film also succeeds as seldom period pieces do. Technically, while most movies set somewhere in the past usually seem like a bunch of actors playing dress-up and the settings looking manufactured, "Summer of Sam" feels as if Lee has literally gone back in time and really made the picture in 1977. To acquire this, a great deal of work has gone into the set decoration, production and costume design, research on the year of 1977, and Lee experiments with several different film stocks to give the picture an "in-the-moment" feeling. The cinematography, by Ellen Kuras, is strikingly distinct and moody, further helping along the setting of 1977. Another decisive technical element that is cause for praise is the astounding, edgy music score by Terence Blanchard that occasionally gives off an air of dreaminess and fantasy amidst the nightmare going on. Complimenting the score are the perfectly-chosen '70s songs, and it is one of the strongest song compilations on a period movie in recent memory.
Lest you have misunderstood, the Son of Sam killer, David Berkowitz (Michael Badalucco), is intermittently shown as a severely unstable man in extreme stages of schizophrenia. Pounding his heavy-set body down on the bed in his trashed apartment, writing wicked, ominous messages on the walls, Berkowitz is constantly being annoyed by the black labrodor retriever whom allegedly told him to kill in the first place, and in a shocking moment that might have been transformed into an unintentional laugh if it wasn't for the painful realism in which it was presented, the dog speaks to him briefly (voiced by John Turturro). When Berkowitz sets out to shoot and kill his victims, the murders are graphically, but non-exploitatively shown. There are no false scares and rising suspense, just a blink-and-you'll-miss it look of horror on the peoples' faces before the gun points straight for them and, BANG, they're life has been taken from them. Too often serial murder is superficially looked upon in mainstream films, so credit Spike Lee for taking these sequences and turning them into stark moments of pure, unadulterated terror.
John Leguizamo has had a misfortune so far in his acting career because he has been given usually comic, one-note roles (1997's horrific comedy, "The Pest," 1995's "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar"). In his first strictly dramatic role that I can remember, we are finally given a glimpse of Leguizamo as a talented, serious actor. His character of Vinny has his virtues--he cares for those people around them, is the symbol of normalcy around his off-beat, foul-mouthed friends who hang out at a "Dead End" street corner--but more often than not is a seriously flawed, unlikable man who blatantly has casual affairs despite the love and care that his wife gives him, and when he is caught, foolishly believes that she will forgive him for what he's put her through.
Academy Award Winner Mira Sorvino (1995's "Mighty Aphrodite, where she gave the best supporting performance of the decade) plays his suffering wife, Dionna, as a loyal woman who is close to her father and works as a waitress at his Italian restaurant. Suspecting Vinny is cheating on her, and unable to please him sexually, Dionna becomes distressed that something must be wrong with her. Starting off as the token "wife," Sorvino's Dionna eventually is uncovered to show us an unexpectedly strong woman who is firm in her beliefs and knows what is right and wrong. Leading to the most heartbreaking moment in the film, Dionna goes along with Vinny to Plato's Retreat, a sleaze club that turns into a free-for-all orgy. Feeling that if she participates in it with Vinny, she will gain his respect, Dionna is devastated afterwards when Vinny blames her for the whole experience, accusing her of not caring about him. Sorvino does not strike one false note, as we are able to deeply sympathize with what she is going through, even more so when she is revealed to be an intelligent, free-thinking woman later on.
Adrien Brody is exceptional as the misunderstood Ritchie, the character who is most suspiciously looked upon due to his quick-changing punk/musician/porn lifestyle, even though he clearly has the most virtuous personality. Seeking to be an individual, Ritchie is always changing his physical appearance and not really sure where his life is headed, but is loyal to Vinny, listening to his problems when even he knows what Vinny is doing could potentially destroy Dionna.
All other performances in "Summer of Sam" are also top-notch, particularly Ben Gazarra; Jennifer Esposito, who adds a fetching naturalism to her relatively underwritten role; and Patti LuPone, as Ritchie's mother who loves him dearly but finds herself throwing him out of the house because of her overpowering new husband (Mike Starr). Even Spike Lee appears as an inadequate news reporter who pops up every now and again to make a commentary on the goings-on in NYC, and adds a much-needed light dose of humor to the overpoweringly dark material.
Controversy has been surrounding "Summer of Sam" ever since Spike Lee began filming the picture in the exact neighborhoods where David Berkowitz once prowled the streets. This simple thought gives the film an added eerieness, but Berkowitz and the families of the victims have cried out about how exploitive this film would be. The good news for them is that they are wrong; the movie does not center or dwell on the gruesome slayings, but wisely exposes an open-ended tapestry of feuding stories, characters, and occurrences within a 2-month time period. Jimmy Breslin opens and closes "Summer of Sam," saying, "There are 8-million stories in the Naked City, and this is one of them." It is, indeed, and a truly spellbinding and powerful one at that.
©1999 by Dustin Putman