In Summer of Sam, Spike Lee has made a small, shapely drama about two young Italian-American couples in the Bronx. While at it, he also made a social protest film on the dynamics of lynch mobs; a pop-music nostalgia piece; a documentary chronicle of New York City in mid-1977; a homage to early Scorsese; and (at one point) a Roger Corman horror movie, complete with bilious colors and a satanic dog who says “Kill!” You can’t pack much more into a film without big chunks coming loose and crashing off the screen–as they sometimes do when Summer of Sam turns a corner.
How to account for this overloaded vehicle, which gives such an uneven but memorable ride? Let’s begin with the writers.
Although Lee takes partial credit for the screenplay, Summer of Sam started out as a script by playwright Victor Colicchio and the extraordinary young actor Michael Imperioli (who has appeared in four of Lee’s previous films and plays a small role in this one). Given the two men’s Italian-American backgrounds–and considering Imperioli’s credits in gay-themed films such as Postcards From America and I Shot Andy Warhol–I think it might have been these writers, rather than Lee, who put in the core stuff about Catholic sexual repression, the Madonna-whore complex and the tricks turned in the ladies’ room at Male World.
Deep-voiced, nutcracker-faced Ritchie (Adrien Brody) is the character who turns the tricks, all the while insisting he’s not gay. He believes he just wants to escape from the Bronx, where his former buddies hang out all day in front of a sign that says “Dead End.” They don’t know about Male World, of course; it’s enough for them, or too much, that crazy Ritchie has bought a Fender guitar, done up his hair in spikes and put on a Sex Pistols accent. Of the Dead End boys, only Vinny (John Leguizamo) tolerates this punk-rock affectation, on the grounds that Ritchie may be weird enough to act as his confessor.
Vinny’s sin: He can’t resist perversions, such as oral sex. Since these practices would debase his wife, Dionna (Mira Sorvino), Vinny has no choice but to cheat on her, as often and as vigorously as possible. Never mind that she rises over him like a maypole beside a satyr; Vinny leaves her glum and confused. And yet, dimly aware of the mistake he’s been making, Vinny begins to fret, wondering if the much-publicized murderer stalking the Bronx–the .44-Caliber Killer, Son of Sam–might be God’s agent, sent to destroy him.
While Vinny pours out these woes, Ritchie is busy discovering his own confessor in a local girl named Ruby (Jennifer Esposito), better known on the street as Ruby the Skank. Clearly, she has reasons of her own to leave Dead End. Soon she joins Ritchie in a loving and supportive punk-rock alliance–providing a neat contrast to the hellward funnel of Dionna and Vinny’s disco marriage.
You will notice that this central drama needn’t have become a film. It could just as well have fit onto the stage, complete with Son of Sam references. I can imagine how talk of the killer might have run through the play as a metaphor–much as Ritchie’s costume now provides the image for one of those speeches, more common in theater than film, that explain the meaning of it all. (Ritchie wears a dog collar. Society keeps everyone on a leash.) At moments in Summer of Sam, you can almost see two chairs in a bare, darkened box–all the setting that would be required for actors to shine in these dialogues.