1977: MY FIRST SUMMER IN AMERICA, AND NEW YORK seemed bent on showing me the movie version of itself. Hotter than hell and twice as humid, and everywhere the talk was of a pudgy maniac who, following instructions from a neighbor's dog, roamed the city offing girls with (it was rumored) shoulder-length brown hair, then bragging about it in notes to the NYPD and Jimmy Breslin. And, always, the media, playing the city's fear and loathing for all it was worth, then rushing in with pro forma deep background when it was over. With David Berkowitz safe in the pen, professional explainers moved in like vultures picking over a stinking corpse, pinning blame on the me decade, the decline and fall of the family, the culture of violence or indifference, and blah blah blah. Berkowitz took a more basic view. "I am deeply hurt by your calling me a wemon hater," he wrote to a top cop in the manhunt. "I am not. But I am a monster. I am 'Son of Sam.' I am a little brat."
Breslin's grizzled, smirky mug fills the screen in the opening scene of Spike Lee's Summer of Sam, assuring us that crime rates are down these days and that New York, 1977, was a different time, a different place. Never mind that serial killers, a specialized breed as hateful to the average lawbreaker as they are to the average citizen, are hardly numerous enough to inflate the crime stats now or then, let alone stand in for what ails America. What's terrifying about serial killers -- and fascinating enough to make them the hardy perennials of movie plots -- is that they stand so far outside society, so far outside our interpretive codes, that we pump them full of our most elemental rage and fear.
That is Spike Lee's insight. Pausing only to lampoon those codes in a brief appearance by Lee as a puffed-up television news reporter, Summer of Sam vaults smartly over the usual explanatory bromides to its own crowded take on the season when -- according to the director -- New York ate itself alive. Lee wanders all over the cultural map, from the Berkowitz murders to the death of Elvis, the Yankees' massacre of the Dodgers, the city's imminent bankruptcy, heavy looting during a massive power outage, and for good measure, disco culture and punk rock -- all filtered through the life of the Bronx enclave where Son of Sam claimed his first victim. It's a neighborhood that Lee obsessively revisits in his movies to chew on his ambivalent fondness for the whites he knows best: working-class Italian-American racists. The famously facetious director's weakness for parodic flourish can easily reduce his characters to burlesque: The tank-topped "Guidos" who, draped around a heavily symbolic yellow sign that screams "Dead End," spew reflexive bigotry as they plot the unmasking of Son of Sam look for all the world like a chorus line plucked from a B-list Broadway musical.
With the two tortured buddies at their center, Lee comes closer to achieving the fleshed-out people that made his recent movie, He Got Game, so touching. Vinny (played by John Leguizamo, who is that rare bird, a performer who can also act) is an excitable disco bunny with a galloping Madonna-whore complex that drives his good-girl wife, Dionna (an irritatingly kittenish Mira Sorvino), to remodel herself as a sexual acrobat, the better to hold his attention. Lee appears to suffer from the same condition as Vinny: Dionna's polar opposite is Ruby, the local slut whom Jennifer Esposito, deploying the smart, brassy verve she brings to television's Spin City, nevertheless, manages to bring to vibrant life. Worldly and vulnerable, Ruby falls hard for Vinny's best friend Ritchie (Adrien Brody), a Mohawked punk rocker with an entertainingly botched cockney accent. At the scene of one of the murders, Vinny, having got it into his head that Son of Sam is an avenging angel signaling him to curb his omnivorous sexuality, is driven to wild swings betweeh virtue and recidivism, while Ritchie, a sensitive misfit in the ballsy crowd both men run with, is moved by the killer to live up to his own dark side. Though he has to contend with glibly aphoristic dialogue ("Evil spelled backward is live"), Brody gives a wonderfully introverted, neurotic performance, a portrait of a man trying to live both in and outside his community who finally becomes its scapegoat.
BRILLIANT, GOOFY, VINDICTIVE, INCOHERENT AND COMpassionate, Summer of Sam begins as a work of startling ambition, spins out of control, and finally limps to a bland halt. Frantically paced scenes of disco frenzy, looting and a postStudio 54 orgy jockey for space with quiet moments like the exchange, as funny as it is moving, between Vinny and Ritchie debating what drives their sexuality. Lee's New York, a surging gash of primary color filtered through cinematographer Ellen Kuras' lyrically expressionist lens, plagiarizes freely from Do the Right Thing. A shifty, predatory hand-held camera hugs the backs of girls' necks or pokes its way into parked cars with blood-spattered windshields. Yet Lee merely flirts with horror: We barely see Son of Sam beyond a few takes of a porky fellow (played by The Practice's Michael Badalucco) rolling around in his undershorts and barking into his pillow while the ugly canine who will later give him his orders (voiced by John Turturro in a characteristically cheeky touch that bevels the edge off your terror) bays in unison outside.
Lee's levity may further inflame parents of victims who already consider the movie an affront to their private grief. Berkowitz, now as fanatical a Christian as he was a killer, is none too happy either. Yet in the end Summer of Sam proves an oddly circumspect movie from a director who draws his energy from exploding pieties by the dozen. At the very moment when the Guidos think they've figured out the killer's identity, the film wilts into a run-of-the-mill message movie about the way blind terror mutates into the persecution of difference. By then, only a lone, astute perception rescues Summer of Sam from movie-of-the-week banality: We Americans make a fetish of "difference" so long as it falls within our narrow parameters of the normal. When it rears up and hits us in the face, we hit back harder.
SUMMER OF SAM | Directed by SPIKE LEE Written by VICTOR COLICCHIO, MICHAEL IMPERIOLI and LEE | Produced by LEE and JON KILIK | Released by Touchstone Pictures | Citywide
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.