AS HE HAS protested for months, Director Spike Lee's "Summer of Sam" is not a film about David Berkowitz (the psychopath dubbed "Son of Sam" during a series of brutal murders 22 years ago) and that's a shame. That minor character (unglamorously played by Michael Badalucco of TV's "The Practice") is the most intriguing and artistically photographed ingredient in this pedestrian-looking mishmash of a movie -- part soap opera, part mob story, part "Saturday Night Fever" and part "Saturday Night Live."
That's right, the ever-surprising (and increasingly disappointing) filmmaker has managed to mine comedy (but no deeper meaning) out of tragic source material: the summer of 1977 when Berkowitz, who claimed his instructions to kill came from a black Labrador retriever, terrorized a New York City stuck in the sweaty grip of a heat wave and plagued by blackouts and looting. Attempting to document a moment in time, "Sam" is the story of the mostly Italian American residents of a working-class Bronx neighborhood, the story of their loves and lusts and how their lives will never be the same after the events of one historic summer. Bring on the yuks!
The funniest sight gag (and low point of the movie) comes when the tortured killer, alone and hallucinating in his filthy apartment, is approached by a neighbor's dog who, enunciating through a jowl full of drool, urges him to continue killing. I fully expected to hear, "Yo quiero Taco Bell" next. Nothing makes for classic comedy like poking fun at schizophrenia.
The inappropriate laughs aside (and the movie is rife with unintentional hilarity, much of it in unnecessary sex scenes), "Summer of Sam" wants to be taken seriously. It focuses on two friends, Vinny (John Leguizamo) and Ritchie (Adrien Brody), and the deterioration of their relationship. Some of it is due to the fear, paranoia and suspicion that sets in over the hunt for Son of Sam, but mostly the murders play a lurid and gratuitous backdrop to a trite melodrama about not very interesting people.
Vinny is a philandering hairdresser who wears powder-blue suits of the sort favored by "Saturday Night Fever's" disco king Tony Manero. He's unhappily married to waitress Dionna (Harvard grad Mira Sorvino doing her best Marisa Tomei impression). His spike-haired friend Ritchie is an aspiring rock musician for a band called Late Term Abortion and a dancer in a gay porn palace. Ritchie's girlfriend Ruby (Jennifer Esposito), known as Ruby the Skank for her, um, generosity with sexual favors, moves to Manhattan and adopts the punk lifestyle, swapping her pink lipstick and big hair for torn fishnets and leather.
But no one's going anywhere. In case you miss the symbolism, Vinny and his greasy pals, led by head goombah Joey T (Michael Rispoli), hang out on a street corner where Lee makes sure we see the sign reading "Dead End" in nearly every unsubtle shot. Eventually, they come to believe that Ritchie is Son of Sam, leading to a climactic showdown after which their lives will never be the same (did I mention that already?).
The problem is not glorification of murder (as some have complained) or even lack of a plot. Plenty happens in "Sam," except that it happens to people about whom we don't care beans because we are never allowed inside their pompadoured heads (despite a tantalizing glimpse into Berkowitz's).
All the late '70s icons are touched upon in Lee's frenetic pastiche: Jordache jeans, "I'm with stupid" T-shirts, Studio 54, CBGB, Plato's Retreat, the Talking Heads' "Psycho Killer," and a strange obsession with men's low-rise bikini briefs. But these nostalgic memories are cobbled together like random images from the scrapbook of a hyperactive child. They may call to mind fond memories (writer Jimmy Breslin, playing himself, introduces the film as a look back at "the good old days") but they hardly constitute a story.
Or a point.
It's never quite clear what exactly Lee is trying to say, until the director himself steps into the picture.
Throughout the film, Lee appears as a television reporter offering Greek chorus-style commentary on the proceedings. Late in the movie, his perpetual Mars Blackmon smirk hidden under a fake mustache and Afro, the newscaster interviews a bunch of black Bedford-Stuyvesant residents for a "darker perspective" on the Son of Sam case.
One woman thanks God that it's a white man who has been killing all these white people and not a brother (though Berkowitz hadn't even been caught yet). If there's any moral to this sorry story, perhaps Lee's stealth-message is it: Even when it's not about race, it is.
SUMMER OF SAM (R, 137 minutes) -- Contains graphic shootings, frequent profanity, mob violence, sexual activity, nudity and drug use. Area theaters.
CAPTION: From left, Adrien Brody, Jennifer Esposito, John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino play four friends from the Bronx whose relationships are tested in the course of the "Summer of Sam."