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Spike Lee is causing a media firestorm

Ty Burr explains what you should make of all the negative attention Lee’s new film, ”Summer of Sam,” is getting

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Spike Lee is causing a media firestorm

Here’s a helpful rule of thumb for divining the general worth of a Spike Lee movie: If it’s generating bales of media controversy, it’s not going to be his best work. If it comes and goes without a major radar blip, it’ll be up to his extraordinarily outsize talents: moving, thought-provoking, a humane and technical marvel.

Which is to say that you probably didn’t catch 1995’s ”Clockers” or 1998’s ”He Got Game,” because commentators and columnists weren’t calling for Lee’s head on a platter. And that’s because those films didn’t go out of their way to push racial/cultural hot buttons (trenchantly? irresponsibly? depends on who you ask), nor was the filmmaker indulging in his annoyingly puckish penchant for in-your-face sound bites. No, here Lee was just making good, solid, troubling stories about people rather than archetypes.

With the towering exception of 1989’s ”Do the Right Thing” — one of the great movies of its decade precisely BECAUSE it pisses so many people off (and, for the record, let’s note that it didn’t start riots in the street as writer Joe Klein predicted it would) — Spike’s art tends to prosper in inverse proportion to his agitprop: ”Jungle Fever,” ”Mo’ Better Blues,” even chunks of ”Malcolm X,” ”Crooklyn,” and ”Girl 6” are all hobbled by the director’s itch to make provocative statements and use his characters as social chess pieces. (Nowhere does this show up more than in Lee’s often-cardboard, more-often-cruel female characters).

So now we’ve got ”Summer of Sam,” a movie that has ticked off everyone from the families of the victims of the infamous ”Son of Sam” to serial killer David Berkowitz himself. Spike is, as usual, defending himself in the press and throwing small, piquant thought bombs in the process. And guess what? The movie itself is a hugely ambitious attempt to corral all the sexual/political/racial/cultural/meteorlogical crosscurrents of 1977 New York City that falls squarely, if fascinatingly, on its butt.

Actually, ”Summer of Sam” is something of a bait and switch. It’s not really about Berkowitz’s reign of terror so much as it’s an Italian-American street scene: ”Mean Streets” meets ”Do the Right Thing.” The main characters are an adulterous Bronx hairdresser (John Leguizamo), his dazed, goodhearted wife (Mira Sorvino), and a neighborhood kid gone punk (Adrien Brody). Hanging in the background are a bunch of low-rent goodfellas who think anyone with a Mohawk has to be a serial killer and — wayyyy off in the distance — the tubby figure of Berkowitz, whose inner and outer torments are played as gonzo, campy horror.

What ”Summer of Sam” does very well is put across an atmosphere of queasy dread, stirring the heat, the blackout, the lootings, CBGBs, and the infamous sex-club Plato’s Retreat into concentric circles of hell. If nothing else, the movie’s a reminder of how truly Disneyfied New York City has become. But Leguizamo’s losing battle with his Madonna/whore complex is laid out obviously from the start and only gets more so, and, Brody aside, the street buddies are snottily observed caricatures (compare Michael Rispoli’s one-note work here with his richly shaded turn as a dying Mafiosi on HBO’s ”The Sopranos.”)

The fault’s not Lee’s alone; he’s working from a script by Michael Imperioli (another ”Sopranos” vet) and Victor Colicchio that puts stick figures in front of an epic canvas. But it’s the director who’s putting this out there as a Spike Lee joint — with all the baggage that that phrase has come to signify. Hasn’t he learned that movies work best when it’s the characters carrying the baggage?