Summer of Sam - B-
Viewed July 3, 1999 at Lincoln Square

"There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This is one of them." Jimmy Breslin intoning that hoary chestnut opens Summer of Sam, and it may be the most inaccurate opening line since Fargo's infamous "based on a true story" ruse. It's just not one story, but at least six. I get the feeling from Sam that Spike Lee is itching to tell every single one of those eight million stories, and it's that driving ambition that's both the greatest strength and weakness of Lee's new joint.

Sam pulsates with a raw energy that makes even films like GoodFellas seem mild-mannered in comparison. The vitality of Lee's filmmaking shows up in everything: the wall-to-wall earthiness of its dialogue[1], the gloriously over-saturated cinematography, and the electrifying intensity of much of the acting. During the entirety of Sam's lengthy running time, I can't claim that I was ever bored. The problem is he's made far too much movie for a measly two and a half hours to contain and the resulting plot is an incoherent mess, with subplots that get stranded high and dry and characters that disappear halfway through, sprinkled in with some very bad ideas. In particular, the scenes showing Berkowitz in his rathole Yonkers apartment are a big mistake. The depiction of his madness is laughable[2] and the scenes depicting the murders he commits border on the crassly exploitative.

In this morass, however, there is the skeleton of a great film in the slow breakdown of Vinny(John Leguziamo) and his marriage to "good girl" Dionna (Mira Sorvino) due to his highly Catholic conception of sin and the sexual self-hatred that it spawns in him. Leguziamo is a livewire of an actor, and his intensity manages to keep Sam from spinning completely out of control. There's some other good stuff scattered here and there[3] but this is the story I kept wanting Lee to come back to.

[1]I wasn't counting the number of four-letter words in the film, but I suspect that Summer of Sam makes a good run for the record. I saw this and South Park on the same day and between the two I'm all fucked out.
[2]And that's even before the talking dog shows up.
[3]Adrien Brody's performance as aspiring punker Richie proves that there's some meat to the hype he got for his edited-out performance in The Thin Red Line.
[4]As a complete aside, I have a question for any longtime New Yorker. Is Spike Lee's cameo supposed to be an imitation of a particular 70's TV reporter in the Big Apple? Because if it isn't, it gets my vote for single worst directorial cameo ever; I can't believe that any station would hire someone so clearly incompetent. (I could swallow it as truth, but not as fiction.)