I was content to spend the summer of 1977 lying on my couch watching reruns of The Brady Bunch. My parents though in their ultimate wisdom thought I should enjoy the great outdoors, so they shipped me off to summer camp where I promptly broke my ankle playing capture the flag. I spent the rest of camp in the clinic lying on the couch watching reruns of The Brady Bunch; such was my karmic destiny. The summer of 1977 is also the setting for director Spike Lees latest film Summer of Sam.
Unlike my dull midwestern summer, Lee depicts New York City as a simmering melting pot of fear and rage. John Leguizamo is Vinny, a sleazy hairdresser who cheats on his wife when hes not loitering in a drug induced stupor with his brutish pals. Cutting a wide swath Lee draws on the contrasts between the popular disco scene and the emerging punk movement, taking us to the legendary Studio 54, Mecca to disco and CBGBs, ground zero for punk. Overcome by a brutal heat wave, followed by a blackout that leads to widespread looting, New York is a city teetering on the verge of self-destruction.
Its with this backdrop that notorious serial killer David Berkowitz, known as the Son of Sam emerges to terrorize the city, brutally gunning down single women and romantic couples at random. Vinny witnesses the aftermath of one of the murders and becomes obsessed, like his entire neighborhood and all of New York, with the killer.
Leguizamo is great as the stoned Vinny, held captive by his own insecurities and self-loathing. Mira Sorvino as his wife Dionna delivers one of her best performances since Mighty Aphrodite. Adrien Brody does a nice job as Ritchie, the lone punker of the neighborhood who likes to feign a British accent.
The portrait of New York in the late seventies feels all too real. Your skin crawls with the grit of the city, the stink, the heat, and the grime. Even the quality of the film with its washed out sepia tones has an authenticity to it. To be sure its an ambitious yet muddled film. For example the flashes of Berkowitz are genuinely horrifying yet at times they also seem to be played for comic relief. The effect is disorienting.
With Summer of Sam Spike Lee has recaptured the realism that earned his early films like Shes Gotta Have It and Do The Right Thing widespread praise. Unfortunately here he loses himself with unnecessary narration, an overly complicated story line and a dull soundtrack. For summer entertainment it beats lying on the couch watching Brady Bunch reruns, but not by much. Im Erik Petersen for Movie Magazine.
© 2002 - Erik Petersen - Air Date: 6/30/99
Summer of Sam
USA - 1999