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Summer of Sam

Portrait of volatility

By Roy Rodenstein

Directed by Spike Lee

Written by Victor Colicchio, Michael Imperioli, Spike Lee

With John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino, Ben Gazzara

In the hundred-degree-plus heat of New York City in the summer of 1977, baseball, music, and social maneuvering coexist in the popular mind with murder. Summer of Sam, whose marketing campaign has been the slickest yet for a Spike Lee film, is more about that steamy and seamy summer than about the infamous serial killer “Son of Sam.” This focus is Lee’s smartest decision, but as his resolve to stick with it wavers, so does the film. Give him the Yankees, the club scene, and the people and he’ll know where to take you.

The people in Summer of Sam are mostly young residents of the Bronx. Vinny (John Leguizamo) hangs out with his very Italian American drug-dealer friends and with the other regular customers. His main joy in life is strutting into the local clubs with his wife Dionna (Mira Sorvino), both dressed for glamour. His other joy in life is sex with women other than his wife, such as the manager of the hair salon where he works. However, Vinny is old-fashioned enough to feel that his life is built on fragile moral grounds. When Son of Sam kills a couple making out in a car parked close to where Vinny had been indulging in the very same act with his wife’s relative moments earlier, he thinks it may be a sign that he had better quit his straying.

The police, meanwhile, enlist the help of local mob boss Luigi (Ben Gazzara), whose reluctance to cooperate with cops is overcome when he’s shown a twisted murder note from the killer -- his concern for the neighborhood even lets his feud with the police rest. On TV, detectives try to reassure the populace by telling them that they are on the case and have suspects. Vinny’s brutish friends, who also place the neighborhood first, draw up their own list. At the top they put Ritchie (Adrien Brody), their former friend, whose newfound punk identity scares and disturbs them. The murder spree, Vinny’s relationship with Dionna, and a vigilante attitude are some of the time-bombs Lee sets ticking.

The most refreshing thing about Summer of Sam is its frankness. With the exception of the shocking murder scenes, the copious violence and sex that the film portrays are admirably contextualized, not exploitative. Vinny and Dionna’s interactions are filled with both sex and violence and, as in Godard’s Contempt, the scenes of conjugal combat hold nothing back. The couple’s sex life is shown just as starkly, but Lee needs no nudity to create powerful scenes. To describe these as earnest would be an understatement. Summer of Sam is as explicit as last year’s Happiness, but nobody laughs at the complex, heartbroken look on Dionna’s face after she fails, yet again, to get Vinny to make passionate love to her. Sorvino and especially Leguizamo are unstoppable in tricky performances as characters that are by nature over the top.

Also strong is the depiction of subculture clashes. When Ritchie invites Vinny and Dionna to see him play with his new punk band in a Manhattan club, the glamorous-looking Bronx couple feels out of place in the crowd, leered at by attendees wearing sundry metal accessories. Back in the Bronx, it is Ritchie who is reviled even by those who knew him when he was “more normal.”

Summer of Sam isn’t all doom and gloom. Smart, funny scenes are in good supply. But when the Italian-American dealers are treated as numbskulls, presumably for comic relief, the film’s carefully constructed portrait loses a lot of credibility.

Lee takes other big gambles. The David Fincher-inspired interludes depicting the killer at home, thinking crazed thoughts fall painfully flat. Then there is the unfortunate, repeated appearance of Spike Lee in front of the camera as a TV reporter, which jarringly takes the viewer out of the engrossing 70’s mood.

Less flashy touches breathe life into that mood with uncommon variety. A soundtrack that features songs for each social group, and the Yankees’ play-by-play call used as the audio backdrop to the serial killer’s marauding for victims are particularly effective. It is this atmosphere, the acute and multi-layer painting of the summer of ’77, that stays with you long after Sam has been locked up.