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Home » Culture and Criticism

Summer Of Sam

Submitted by on June 9, 2008 – 8:29 AM10 Comments

Today's 12 Days offering is a quantum leap of ahead of yesterday's in terms of the acting quality (mostly…Mira), and it gets a Gotham heat wave exactly right.Bunting takes a break from a Gotham heat wave of her own to examine Summer Of Sam.

Summer Mission: To survive.The movie takes place in New York City in the infamous summer of '77 — the Son of Sam is on the loose, it's hot as hell, brownouts, looting, you know the drill.

On a more micro scale, Vinny (John Leguizamo, doing top-notch work with a too-obviously-written and faintly despicable character) is trying to hold together his marriage to Dionna (Mira Sorvino, overmatched as usual) while cheating on her with a cast of dozens; Richie (Adrien Brody) is doing the punk thing while working at a gay strip joint and falling in love with Ruby (Jennifer Esposito); the cops (including Anthony LaPaglia and his righteous sideburns) ask for the Mob's help finding the .44-Caliber Killer; and the neighborhood mooks (Michael "Jackie Sr." Rispoli among them) drink beer, have fugly blow-dries, and harass people.

I like Spike Lee, and I forgive him his failures because usually there's something interesting going on even if it doesn't work.That's the case with Summer Of Sam, which can't decide if it's a time capsule or a character study, and because a lot of time is spent establishing the former, the story doesn't hang together well as the latter.You get a lot of montages, and set pieces accompanied by '70s disco and soul, and while it's shot beautifully by Ellen Kuras (Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind), these sequences slow the narrative down — and when Lee turns his attention back to the characters, then their scenes go on too long.

Lee's trying to do a little too much, and the story feels fragmented as a result, but the movie does a lot of things right.The acting is good throughout; where it's not, the dialogue or scene structure is often at fault.Kuras does a great job of making you feel how hot it is, and Lee can lean too hard on direct address to camera, but his use of it here using Jimmy Breslin is effective.

The movie's not an overall success — a little too slow, a little too obvious — but it didn't deserve the critical caning it got when it came out, and it's worth a look.

Enviable Vacation Locale?: The Bronx during a heat wave, with a serial killer on the loose?Yeah, not so much.There's a reason my parents went to Jersey to have their kids, and it's this shit.I wouldn't mind watching that Yankees team instead of the one we've got this year, but I'm also a fan of not getting shot in the head.

Quick-Burning Summer Romance?: Based on what we see in the Plato's Retreat sequence, Vinny does, um, "burn" pretty "quick."Richie's relationship with Ruby is a romance, I guess, but it's kind of cynical and bent, in ways Lee doesn't fully explore.So, no.

Best Summer Ever?: Emphatic no.

Unconventional Ways To Beat The Heat: Actually, the movie nails these.You see couples climb into the bathtub with bags of ice from the deli; Dionna and her dad and Vinny kick it in her dad's restaurant's walk-in freezer, playing cards; Richie's mom and stepdad (Patti LuPone and Mike Starr, way underused) have seven fans arranged around them to watch TV.The set-up for the brownout, which makes a point of showing all the electric fans all over the place in the dozen shots prior, is excellent.

Summer Fashions: Also good.There's always the danger in movies set in the '70s that the costume design is going to turn into a big distraction; Ruth E. Carter gets it right without getting all "look, Ma, polyester!" about it.

Worth The A/C?: I'd say yes — it's nice and long, so even if you're only there to nap, you'll fit in a nice long one.Wake up for credits fun that includes John Turturro as the voice of the dog; Phil "Rizuto" as himself; Evander Holyfield in a riot scene; and a high-school friend of mine playing Rocco's girlfriend (evidently; I've seen the movie probably four times, but never have been able to spot her).

As A Summer Movie: Scores poorly on the mindless-entertainment index, but it's fun to look at and does an excellent job of evoking hot town, summer in the city, so: A-minus.

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  • Sarah says:

    The thing that confuses me about this movie: Adrien Brody is SO GREAT as that punker guy. SO GREAT. And then he went on to be absolutely annoying and mannered and loathsome in everything else he did, until Darjeeling Express, when he was the one good thing in the movie… or the one good actor in the movie, since I did also enjoy the sets and how realistically sweaty everyone looked all the time. Maybe AB can turn in one great performance per decade? Or maybe he can only turn in a great performance if "pretending to constantly be on the verge of heat stroke" is one of the requirements? So strange…

  • AES says:

    One of my most horribly embarassing memories of high school is renting this with my Dad one night when we were both home and bored. He thought it would be a fun romp down memory lane, as he has vivid memories of NYC in the summer of '77 (like my Grandma making my aunts' cut their hair since it was apparent that Sam targeted women with long hair). We couldn't even look at each other after the Plato's Retreat scene. But it makes for a good laugh now!

  • Amie says:

    I remember seeing this movie when it came out. On my way in, an older couple was arguing with the manager to get their money back because "the movie was supposed to be about the Son of Sam! Not this garbage!". Hee.

    Afterwards, I had a discussion about the film and I came to the conclusion that it did a reasonably good job of evoking an overall sense of sweaty, confused frustration. The narrative was a little off, but the end with the chaotic rioting made me feel a little chaotic and rioty, so I decided that, if it were the goal to give me a glimpse of feeling the same experience, it did a good job of it. I haven't seen it since, so this may all be nonsense from my memory, though!
    I felt similarly about reading the novel A Clockwork Orange.

  • RK says:

    Based on what we see in the Plato's Retreat sequence, Vinny does, um, "burn" pretty "quick."

    Oh, god. When I went to see this movie in the theatre, right after this scene some lady behind us yelled out, "Damn! I hate that jackrabbit shit!" My friend D, who usually tsks disapprovingly when people in movie theatres act like they're sitting in their living room, laughed so hard she almost peed her pants. As did I. To this day we'll occasionally yell that out at random moments, just to crack each other up.

  • Diane says:

    I love that jackrabbit shit, and will be nabbing that comment immediately – and often.

    As to the movie: the Spike-Lee-does-misogyny-for-your-entertainment thing was the main downer for me. As it tends to be. Otherwise, this film did hit the marks it seemed to want to, and it was one of Leguizamo's more interesting gigs. Jackrabbit shit or no, I enjoy that guy.

    (Brody was good, but the "punk" thing has always amused the dickens out of me. The Who … was PUNK, ya think, Spike … ? Ah. Yeah. That character was punk like Dubya is smart. But then, I've been snickering at/arguing with people who want to think that punk is still alive and well for over twenty years. *Sigh*)

  • Margaret in CO says:

    I LOVEloveLOVE John Leguizamo. The guy will play ugly, will play scary, creepy, twisted & wrong, will play slimy little freak clown roles (shudder) and play them with all his heart. So underrated, in my opinion.
    I love Adrien Brody too. Big noses are so sexy.

    "There's always the danger in movies set in the '70s that the costume design is going to turn into a big distraction" No kidding, huh? Ever watch "That 70's Show?" – about 1/3 of the shirts have Kelso wear are GIRL's shirts! Heh. You'd think somebody'd ask thier mom "Mom, didja ever wear THIS?"

  • Anthony R. says:

    Sarah, I believe, and I may be mistaken, that the movie you're referring to is "The Darjeeling Limited", which was awesome. Adrien Brody is a darn good actor. Have you not seen "The Jacket"? For what it is, it's good. That's kinda how you have to take his stuff. Also, Leguizamo guarantees a fun time.

  • Robin says:

    @Sarah: 'Summer of Sam' was one of the many films I sat through (and in some cases, *suffered* through) in my post-Oscar Brody mega-crush. I agree that 'Oxygen', 'Affair of the Necklace', and 'Ten Benny' were painful. But, but, but–did you SEE 'The Pianist'?? He's not Oscar's youngest Best Actor recipient for nothing. His performance was a revelation. And, judging from his job in 'SOS', not a fluke.

    (I also agree with Anthony R about 'The Jacket'.)

  • Sarah says:

    Re: Adrien Brody: I *did* see The Pianist, and personally didn't enjoy his performance – I never forgot that I was watching him Acting, which is a problem I tend to have w his performances – I find him mannered and inclined to fall back to a limited set of expressions/movements to convey what's going on with the character. I admit it's a totally subjective, judgmental sort of thing – I'm sure you could say the same thing about any number of performers who, for whatever reason, don't bother me a bit… but what's the fun of discussing actors and movies if you can't be a bit exaggerated in your likes and dislikes, right?

    Also, Anthony R. and Robin – I promise I'll watch The Jacket soon, and be as open-minded as possible. In fact, I'll add it to my Netflix cue right now, right after The Majestic Rubensteins, and Rushmost, which I'm suddenly craving to see again for some reason… ;)

  • Sarah says:

    Oops. Netflix QUEUE. Sorry.

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