Spike Lee is sure to rile up New York's Italian American community with "Summer of Sam," a savage portrait of a sorry quintet of Bronx-bred goombahs. This from the guy who said that he, instead of Norman Jewison, should direct "Malcolm X," because he was black and knew the subtleties of African American society.
So why didn't he ask Martin Scorsese to direct "Summer of Sam"? Given the sensitivity he shows to Italian American culture, perhaps he feels he's learned enough about the subject from making his pizza commercials.
Written by Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli along with the director, the script recalls Lee's superb urban parable "Do the Right Thing," but this bleak, sluggishly paced effort never achieves that film's fierce clarity. Hobbled by a multiplicity of narrative lines and superfluous, often stereotypical characters, the movie suffers from a lack of both focus and passion. It never catches fire.
Set in the summer of 1977, it's a paean to the city as pressure cooker. But for all the sweating and sordid sex, it never really blows its top. Gotham sizzles under a record heat wave, but people stay inside for fear of encountering Son of Sam. Driven by the neighbor's dog and his own demons, blubbery loner David Berkowitz has begun slaughtering lovers and brunettes with shoulder-length hair.
"Summer of Sam," however, is not about Berkowitz, though he is frequently seen in action or banging his head against the walls. It's about the serial killer's effect on the lives of five obnoxious dimwits from the Country Club section of the Bronx, where Berkowitz's first victims were discovered.
Despite the uptown moniker, the crummy neighborhood is home to loudmouthed losers like Vinny (John Leguizamo), a randy hairdresser; Ritchie (Adrien Brody), a gay hustler and porn star; Joe T. (Michael Rispoli), a dangerous drug dealer; Woodstock (Saverio Guerra), nondescript bully No. 1; and Brian (Ken Garito), nondescript bully No. 2.
Vinny, a little man in Cuban heels, has some sort of Madonna-whore complex and is incapable of sleeping with his wife, Dionna (Mira Sorvino). He is just as incapable of being faithful to her, and she pretends not to know about his philandering. After a close brush with Berkowitz, Vinny vows to be true . . . until the next opportunity presents itself.
Meanwhile, Ritchie, his best friend, returns to the neighborhood after a year and a half in the Village. He irks his old pals with a pretentious British accent, punk fashion sense and expanded view of the universe. Vinny accepts him, but the other lunkheads come to see Ritchie as a menacing outsider.
While hanging out at their favorite diner, the paisanos form a list of Son of Sam suspects that includes the parish priest, Reggie Jackson and Vinny. These idiots are sometimes funny, and often irksome and vicious when their turf is threatened. Ben Gazzara, the local don, supplies the vigilantes with all the pasta they can eat and arms them with baseball bats.
Lee's reputation rests in part on the layered, nuanced black characters he has created. This film has only one, a detective. The other supporting characters are all too often drawn from Italian American stereotypes. Many of them, like Gazzara and his goons, are less authentic than Paul Newman's red sauce.
Leguizamo, on the other hand, is wholly believable in his first starring dramatic role, and manages to reveal the humanity deep within Vinny's sorry character. Sorvino is also convincing as a naive woman willing to try anything--including an orgy--to save her marriage. Impressive too are Brody ("The Thin Red Line"), as the vulnerable Ritchie, and Jennifer Esposito, as the neighborhood punchboard who becomes Ritchie's girl.
"Summer of Sam" can be sordid and sour, but the film is not without compassion or concern for its central characters. There are scenes that sing, moments that soar and style to spare. It's all those hours in between.
Summer of Sam (137 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity, violence, sexual situations, nudity and drug use.
CAPTION: Adrien Brody and John Leguizamo, playing their stereotypes too loud in Spike Lee's "Summer of Sam."
CAPTION: Country Club (Bronx) chic: Jennifer Esposito and Adrien Brody give among the more convincing performances in Spike Lee's "Summer of Sam."