If you listen to Spike Lee, Summer of Sam means to be a panoramic view of the summer of 1977 in New York City -- when temperatures shot into the high 90s and power blackouts set nerves on edge, when the party agenda included snorting coke at Studio 54 and copulating with piles of strangers at Plato's Retreat, when the Reggie Jackson-led Yankees rose toward another World Series title and a psychopath calling himself the Son of Sam terrorized five boroughs (and inflamed the tabloid media) with a series of brutal handgun murders. To hear Lee tell it, he's a wide-ranging urban observer on the lookout for major signals, bent on re-creating a scary moment in the life of a great metropolis.
Don't count on it. At root, most Spike Lee movies are about racial grievance, and despite the startling absence here of black major characters, Summer of Sam is largely about racial grievance, too.
Blue-collar New York Italians have served as Lee's whipping boys since 1989, when a pack of white vigilantes in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, surrounded Yusuf Hawkins, an innocent black teenager who wandered into their neighborhood: One of them shot him dead. Lee's best film, the incendiary Do the Right Thing, resonated perfectly with the Hawkins case, and it launched his first crop of unlikable "guidos." But the sheer volume of lamebrained, spaghetti-bending caricatures the director stuffs into Summer of Sam is unlike anything he has conjured up before. For decades, Hollywood remained stubbornly ignorant of the varieties of black experience, and Lee seems more determined than ever to return the favor to anybody named Mario, Tony, or Luigi.
Out of the primordial ooze crawls our protagonist, Vinny (John Leguizamo), a cocky little Bronx hairdresser who's cheating on his wife and who remains captive to both machismo and Catholic guilt. He's a sneering hustler in a high-boy collar, all bad attitude and neighborhood flash. There's no way that Lee, despite his halfhearted effort, can convince us he has the slightest regard for this guy. Vinny's street-corner pals are even more primitive: They include a sweaty junkie (Saverio Guerra) who hawks stolen lobsters to finance his next fix; a fat drug dealer (Michael Rispoli) who brings his little girl to work with him; and "Bobby the Fairy" (Brian Tarantina), a mincing caricature in which Lee seems to take special pleasure. When they're all standing around smoking cigarettes, Lee sticks a "Dead End" road sign into the frame with them -- just as a student moviemaker might.
The women? Ruby (Jennifer Esposito) is the neighborhood slut who's really looking for love. Gloria (Bebe Neuwirth) is the married hair-salon owner who can't wait to take her dress off for Vinny. And Helen (Patti LuPone) is a slovenly mother who runs an illegal card game. But even when he's striving to be pluralistic and open-minded, Lee's contempt shows. Vinny's pretty wife, Dionna (Mira Sorvino), is so stupidly blind to his sins that you want to shake her, and Vinny's best friend, Ritchie (Adrien Brody), who has broken with the old Bronx ways by moving downtown, spiking his hair, and affecting a British working-class accent, is anything but a model of social rebellion: He makes ends meet working as a gay whore and acting in porn flicks.
The original Summer of Sam screenplay is credited to a pair of Lee's friends, Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli. But the ethnic stereotypes that abound here have clearly been tweaked by Lee himself, who acknowledges "opening up the story" from the writers' final draft.
Superficially, that story tells how Berkowitz (Michael Badalucco), alias "the .44-caliber killer" and "Son of Sam," ignited paranoia across the entire city in the heat of '77. Lee splashes screaming headlines from the New York tabloids across the screen, tells us how brunettes (Sam's victims) began dying their hair blond, and provides disconcerting glimpses of the killer's private torment. He also re-enacts -- with a little too much zest, I thought -- four or five of the actual murders. In another questionable aesthetic choice, Lee has the black dog that Berkowitz claimed was commanding him to kill ... actually command him to kill -- in a human voice. This ploy is likely meant to chill. Instead, the audience I saw the movie with couldn't help bursting into laughter.
In any event, Summer of Sam has very little to do with the psychological effects of a killer loose in the city. Its real subject is the violence of lynch mobs. In a far-fetched twist, Vinny's none-too-bright pals conclude that their old friend Ritchie is the Son of Sam -- largely because he now sports a blond mohawk, plays punk rock at a club on the Bowery, and hardly ever stops by anymore for a slice of pizza and a beer. In the end, the assembled morons go after Ritchie. But in Spike Lee's view this has nothing to do with the Berkowitz case itself: If these mindless barbarians can savage one of their own, it says here, imagine what they'd do to somebody they already hate -- a black or a Puerto Rican. Thus does Lee once more evoke the ghost of Yusuf Hawkins.
Where some viewers see belligerence and shaky melodrama, others are bound to find social truth. After all, Lee is a moviemaker who, in his best work, tackles tough social issues head-on -- interracial romance in Jungle Fever, the burdens of greatness in Malcolm X, racism itself in Do the Right Thing. But even staunch Lee fans may find Summer of Sam disappointing. Here is America's most heralded and, possibly, most talented minority filmmaker diddling around with caricature and race-baiting when he could be aiming higher.