'Summer of Sam' loses way in a sea of sex, dirty words

July 02, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Maybe it was the talking dog that finally put me over the edge.

"Summer of Sam," Spike Lee's ambitious yet addled new film, is so full of non sequiturs, gratuitous sex and emotionally empty characters that for the first hour you simply watch it with mouth disbelievingly agape.

Then, in one of the movie's supposedly climactic scenes, where serial killer David Berkowitz battles his interior demons, the black lab that Berkowitz actually blamed for the murders begins to speak to him, Taco Bell-chihuahua style.

The burst of laughter that greeted the scene in a recent screening couldn't be what Lee had in mind. But then again, "Summer of Sam" couldn't be either. This misguided jumble of raunchy set pieces and bouts of brutal violence is far beneath Lee's talents, even as it displays the director's signature nerve and visual moxie. Somewhere in this orgy of meaningless excess a great movie may have been trying to get out, but "Summer of Sam" is not that film.

It's important to point out that, despite its title and marketing materials, "Summer of Sam" is not about the six murders David Berkowitz committed during the summer of 1977. Instead, Lee focuses on a group of fictional characters whose lives are irrevocably touched by the paranoia that enveloped the Bronx once suspicions started to run amok.

Vinny and Dionna (John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino) are a young married couple who work as a hairdresser and waitress by day, and dance their nights away at a local disco.

Ritchie (Adrien Brody), has been a member of Vinnie and Dionna's circle, but lately he's taken to spiking his hair, wearing dog collars and Union Jack T-shirts and speaking with a British accent. Why this devotee of the new punk movement listens worshipfully to the 6-year-old album "Who's Next" and not "The Clash" is never quite explained (although Lee makes good use of the Who's anthemic "Baba O'Reilly" in a later montage).

Similar anachronisms bedevil "Summer of Sam," including references to "the city that never sleeps" three years before Frank Sinatra would make those words immortal.

But these are the tiniest of quibbles next to "Summer of Sam's" biggest problem, which is a trivial storyline that never comes totally into focus. Trying to evoke the social context of the 1970s that was so brilliantly portrayed in "Boogie Nights," and no doubt looking toward "Taxi Driver" for its atmosphere of panicky paranoia, Lee has managed to create an incomprehensible pastiche of sex scenes, with a few shootings and beatings thrown in.

As far as Vinny is concerned, the murders gripping his community mean he can engage in a string of graphic encounters with his wife and others; for Dionna they mean a trip to the infamous sex club Plato's Retreat (after brief visits to CBGB's and Studio 54). For Ritchie, it means that he becomes a male stripper, giving Lee lots of ogle opportunities.

Clearly Lee wants "Summer of Sam" to be more than just the sum of these parts -- the film also follows Reggie Jackson's first year with the Yankees, and includes a ravishingly frenetic sequence depicting the lootings that followed one of the season's famed brown-outs. And he makes his point about the dangers of scapegoating with brutal clarity. But he never manages to connect the dots in any compelling or emotionally involving way.

What's more, he has relegated the Berkowitz tragedies to a coarse afterthought, depicting the victims as anonymous human targets devoid of identity or moral valence. (In a troubling scene later on, Lee, playing a newscaster, introduces Berkowitz as if he's a rock star.)

Instead, audiences are treated to more raunchy sex than they could possibly want or need, more Scorsese references than they can stand and more profanity than their ears can take. "Summer of Sam" will leave viewers with a whopping case of F-word fatigue, both in its literal and figurative essence.

Lost in this hyperkinetic muddle are some fine performances, especially from Leguizamo, Ben Gazzara as a Bronx mob leader who takes matters into his own hands, and Brody, whose soulful look makes even his sketchily drawn character come alive. Good too are Jennifer Esposito as a disco queen who becomes an unlikely punk rocker, and Brian Tarantina as a young man who's tough enough to walk the streets of the Bronx with a pink hibiscus tucked behind his ear.

Not great is Jimmy Breslin, who introduces "Summer of Sam" and also provides the movie's confoundingly cliched epilogue. "There are 8 million stories in the naked city," the self-important columnist intones. "This was one of them." But that's precisely the problem. It wasn't.

`Summer of Sam'

Starring John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino

Directed by Spike Lee

Rated R (strong graphic violence and sexuality, pervasive strong language and drug use)

Released by Touchstone Pictures

Running time 137 minutes

Sun score *

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