We gave it a C
If you want to learn about the serial killer David Berkowitz, who terrorized New Yorkers in the summer of 1977 and whom tabloids dubbed Son of Sam because he said a dog owned by a neighbor named Sam told him to murder, look elsewhere. In Summer of Sam, Spike Lee isn’t interested in truth — or coherence, for that matter. Instead, wearing the Professional Provocateur cap he’s so maddeningly attached to, Lee is at his most bombastic: In this hotheaded sociological fantasy, he attempts to link the disco glitz of Studio 54, the punk scene of CBGB, the ethnic insularity of Italian Americans, the bloody shooting spree of a madman who taunted the police, the effect of sizzling heat on city asphalt, and the sexual problems between a sweaty Bronx local named Vinny (John Leguizamo) and his frustrated wife, Dionna (Mira Sorvino), into one rattling chain of urban hysteria.
The links don’t hold, broken by the kind of addled deductions (women are blown away because one guy in the Bronx cheats on his wife?), race baiting, and sexual nutsiness with which Lee tends to undermine his own strongest artistic interests. An intro and coda by newspaper columnist and self-created character Jimmy Breslin — a ”Dead End” street sign positioned showily behind him — adds to the manufactured swagger.
There is, as ever, a magnetically florid sweep to Lee’s scene making: Fetishistic care is lavished, for example, on an orgy at the infamous sex club Plato’s Retreat. Time is wasted showing Dionna dancing (with trademark Sorvino self-consciousness). The real, less baroque motivations of people, though — comprehensible people, rather than symbols and placeholders — are of minimal interest to the filmmaker.
Out of this morass one actor etches a character of lingering effect: As a paisan of Vinny’s whose passionate conversion to the punk lifestyle alienates his former street-corner pals to the point of violent fury, Adrien Brody emerges as the costar whose star qualities we didn’t have enough time to appreciate in The Thin Red Line. We learn nothing from Summer of Sam except, thanks to Brody, that punks are people too. C