423) Summer of Sam (1999) Dir: Spike Lee Date Released: July 1999 Date Seen: December 1, 2009 Rating: 2.25/5
Cynicism does not become Spike Lee, a lesson that complements an established truism about his much-scrutinized body of work: Spike doesn't do comedy very well. Because he's made a career out of examining racial tension by way of caricatures, his humor is inherently confrontational and more than a little boisterous. By that token, Summer of Sam is not a straight-laced snapshot of the hysteria that struck New York City during the summer of 1977, but rather an excuse for him to shoot fish in a barrel. The film is a black comedy about the paranoia that led a group of civic-minded Bronx-bred goombahs on a vigilante hunt for the .44 Caliber Killer (They decide if you're one of the good guys based on what your favorite baseball team is. Here's a hint as to what the right answer is: do de evolution, I mean math). He picked this moment in history as an excuse to look back at the city in heat and at its ugliest for the sake of wringing out a few cheap yuks about the wacky '70s (the film's representative punk listens to The Who while its womanizing disco duck makes the big mistake of taking his girlfriend to Plato's Cave only to be kicked out of the car after being called a "faggot hair dresser" while Abba's "Dancing Queen" plays; dig that counter-point, Spike).
And yet, amongst all that jeering and proudly unsympathetic nonsense is some genuinely mean-spirited but funny moments. Lee's depiction of the Bronx mafiosi's first official meeting as a posse, where they come up with their list of suspect suspects, is priceless, as is his snide dedication to a series of interludes surrounding David Berkowitz, the real killer. In them, Berkowtiz angrily beats his pillow, spells out his plans with children's building blocks and finally has a brief but memorable conversation with the dog that's been tormenting throughout the film ("Kill! Kill! Kill them all!"). These scenes work because they're genuinely risible. The rest of Summer of Sam is just plain ugly.