"SUMMER OF SAM"|
137 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, July 2, 1999
Written & directed by Spike Lee
Starring John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino, Jennifer Esposito, Michael Rispoli, Brian Tarantino, Bebe Neuwirth, Anthony LaPaglia, Ben Gazzara, John Savage, Spike Lee
Cameo by Jimmy Breslin
SMALL SCREEN SHRINKAGE: 50%|
LETTERBOX: COULDN'T HURT
A total yawner in the theater, "SOS" will positively put you to sleep watching it at home.
VIDEO RELEASE: 12/21/99
Spike Lee sleepwalks through aimless, uninteresting ode to the panic David Berkowitz spawn in '77
The sixth line of my notes from the "Summer of Sam" preview screening reads, "if Spike Lee wants us to sit here for 137 minutes, he'd better pick up the pace."
An hour later, without a hint of an upswing in the movie's tempo, noticed I was near the back of the theater where there was a little bit of light, so I pulled out the press kit and started reading it, just to have something to do.
"Summer of Sam," Lee's ode to the panic that struck the New York boroughs during David Berkowitz's 1977 Son of Sam killing rampage, lumbers like a Cadillac with a flat tire stuck in first gear.
It doesn't follow Berkowitz, per se -- except for a few unnecessarily graphic .44 caliber interludes placed throughout the film -- because it's supposed to be about the reaction of the city's citizenry. And that would be OK if Lee had picked more interesting citizens.
But in "SOS," we're stuck with a handful of pointless, aimless stories that all center around a group of small-time thugs in an Italian enclave of the Bronx. It's like Lee plundered a few day players from the set of a B-grade Martin Scorsese knock-off.
The plot, what there is of it, spends a lot of time on the relationship problems of a pair of young marrieds played by Mira Sorvino and John Leguizamo. Leguizamo has become a philanderer because he can't bear to ask his willing wife for anything more than mechanical, Missionary monkey business. His Catholic sex-guilt hang-ups get more screen time than anything else in the picture. Why we're supposed to care, I couldn't venture to guess.
Also on the card is Adrien Brody ("The Thin Red Line") as a poseur proto-punk who lives in his parents' converted garage and strips at an underground gay club. He takes heat from his former friends -- the aforementioned neighborhood toughs -- for affecting an English accent and wearing a mohawk and dog collar. Later, while on a vigilante crusade, they decide the Brody must be the Son of Sam killer based on his fashion sense and force Leguizamo to lure him into a baseball bat ambush.
Meanwhile, Berkowitz (Michael Badalucco) is played as such a shadowy enigma that you don't come out of this movie knowing anything more about the Son of Sam killings than you did going in. A working knowledge of the murders that summer is pretty much a prerequisite.
Berkowitz's scattered scenes -- over-exposed on grainy, yellow film stock -- consist mostly of three things: 1) Shots of his arm holding a gun and blowing off the backs of people's heads. 2) Shots of him screaming and rolling around on his bed with a pillow wrapped around his noggin. 3) Shots of him spelling out narrative aides with children's blocks (like "victims six and seven").
A small payoff, in the form of a surprise laugh, comes in one of these scenes from getting to see the neighbor's black dog speak to Berkowitz (courtesy of computer effects) and tell him he must kill. For those who don't know, when he was caught, Berkowitz told the cops the dog made him do it.
Although most of the performances feel powerfully real, there's not a single soul worth caring about in this entire story. But it's not as if Spike Lee doesn't know what he's doing. "Summer of Sam" has some very strong moments, especially in the way it depicts the tension that weighs on the entire city of New York during this killer's random rampage.
On a small scale, the Berkowitz episodes vibrate with quaking, nervous energy. On a large scale, scenes of looting during a power outage (in which Lee has a cameo as a TV reporter) feel panicky and dangerous. These scenes prove that the director hasn't lost his touch. But you wouldn't know it from the rest of the picture. Even the editing is bad -- different takes cut into the same scene are painfully obvious (which might have been intentional, but it's hard to tell).
If I had to say something nice about "Summer of Sam," it would be that it has a soundtrack so well assembled that even Chic and ABBA sound cool in context with Barry White, The Who, Marvin Gaye and Talking Heads.
Luckily, I'm a movie critic, so I don't have to say anything nice. Therefore I'm done.