** 1/2 Stars
(USA 1999) Rated R
John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino, Jennifer Esposito, Bebe Neuwirth, Patti LuPone, Anthony LaPaglia, Ben Gazzara
Directed by Spike Lee
Buena Vista * 141 minutes
No one ever accused Spike Lee of being subtle, and his latest entry, SUMMER OF SAM, is no exception. Big, noisy, ugly, disturbing, gritty, at times brilliant, it is, along with EYES WIDE SHUT, a compelling argument for a rating system that reflects the reality that there are some films that should not be seen by children, with or without parental consent.
The summer of 1977 was one of bad clothes and worse music. I was just out of college, living at home, working in a retail training program, wearing Danskin leotards and skirts and looking for love in New Jersey discos. Needless to say, I do not remember that year particularly fondly. If you lived in New York, it was a year in which Studio 54 was king. It was a year in which Plato's Retreat, a Manhattan sex club, was talked about by more people than actually attended. It was a party year fueled by quaaludes, cocaine, and casual sex in those heady days when "AIDS" was a lower case word that followed the word "sexual" in the context of mail order catalogs.
It was also one of the hottest summers on record, punctuated by a massive citywide blackout punctuated by race riots -- and the summer in which a madman named David Berkowitz went on a killing spree in the Bronx and Brooklyn, targeting couples in parked cars and young brunette women, allegedly at the behest of his neighbor's dog. The story of "The .44 Caliber Killer", or the "Son of Sam", as he came to be known, triggered a massive tabloid war between the Daily News and New York Post, as to which paper could whip the populace into more of a frenzy.
SUMMER OF SAM dramatizes how, amidst the heat, the drugs, and the racial tension, the presence of an insane, unknown killer sets off tensions and paranoia that divide friend from friend; neighbor from neighbor. The film's overriding theme is hardly original -- fear and loathing of the unfamiliar, in this case triggered by a real threat, tearing apart lifelong relationships.
John Leguizamo is Vinny, a priapic hairdresser who compulsively cheats on his wife Dionna (Mira Sorvino). Ritchie (Adrien Brody) is his friend, a sexually ambiguous young man who has embraced a strange mix of punk culture, bisexual porn, and the music of The Who, combined with a bizarre Bronx/British accent. He acquires quasi-girlfriend, known around the neighborhood by the losers for whom the double standard is not only alive and well, but has been elevated to a religion, as "Ruby the Skank" (a trashed-out Jennifer Esposito). Their circle also encompasses a circle of Italian-American archetypes, the sort of no-future losers first immortalized in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. As the Son of Sam killer terrorizes their neighborhood, these losers, a powerless lot feeling even more powerless by the threat attacking their neighborhood, vainly attempt to gain control over the situation by making a list of who could be the Son of Sam killer, eventually focusing their attention on Ritchie, who dares to be different.
Spike Lee has a tendency to pile on the symbolism with a backhoe, and in this film, such heavy-handedness is sometimes effective despite itself. A montage of a series of graphically-depicted Son of Sam killings cross-cut with stylized shots of Ritchie playing his prostitution-financed Fender Stratocaster to the sounds of The Who's Teenage Wasteland are heavy-handed, but effective. On the other hand, a scene in which Berkowitz is actually visited by the dog from which the name "Son of Sam" derives (which in this version has been transformed from the Irish Setter of the real dog to a more threatening-looking, massive black Labrador Retriever), looks like outtakes from that flea control TV commercial, with the dog actually speaking to Berkowitz. This scene falls flat with a resounding thud, adding an incongruous (and I hope unintentional) comic note. A shot of Vinny and his go-nowhere friends depicted against the backdrop of a "Dead End" road sign is just a bit obvious.
With the exception of Lee himself as an ABC-TV Eyewitness News reporter and Mira Sorvino, who seems entirely too classy and too refined to be a Bronx pizza waitress, let alone be married to the skeevey Vinny, the performances are excellent. Leguizamo is tightly-wound, paranoid, and conflicted as Vinny. Adrien Brody, who looks like the love child of Nicolas Cage and David Schwimmer, imbues Ritchie with an intelligence and pathos entirely inconsistent with his bizarre appearance. Jennifer Esposito is both trampy and sweet as Ruby, and Ben Gazzara makes an entirely credible gangser, who is brought in by the police to help catch the killer.
The film is as tense, ugly, paranoid, and heated as that terrible summer. Its outdoor scenes have a washed-out look that FEELS hot and humid, yet no one seems to be perspiring much. These are people who live in apartments without air conditioning, but except for sitting around in their underwear and getting angry, there's no indication that they're overheated. Spike Lee's Bronx circa 1977 is a place where everyone takes a lot of drugs and gets laid a lot, despite the heat. And SUMMER OF SAM is loaded with sex. Tons of it, all of it nasty, hostile, brutal and exploitive. Rarely has sex in a mainstream film been portrayed with so little eroticism. The sex in this film is almost as violent as the graphic, blood-spurting violence of the murders. And therein lies my bafflement with the film's "R" rating.
SUMMER OF SAM is a profoundly ugly and disturbing film, despite its flashes of brilliance. This is just not a film for children of any age. I fail to understand how the MPAA justified this film's rating, and it shows just how capricious and hypocritical that organization is about determining what constitutes. Clearly the time has come for "adult film" to be granted a meaning distinct from pornography.
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