Spike Stew

David Berkowitz, the infamous Son of Sam, is just a deranged background figure in "Summer of Sam." In Spike Lee's garish, explosive mural of the New York summer of 1977, the serial killer is merely the catalyst who sets off a heat wave of fear and paranoia. Lee aims to give us a kaleidoscopic picture of a summer of riots, blackouts and disco fever, a time of Plato's Retreat orgies, Studio 54 drug excess and the emergence of punk. A thick stew of sex, violence and suspicion, Lee's movie--spiked up with a virtually nonstop soundtrack--definitely has the power to jangle your nerves. A hysterical movie about hysterical people in a hysterical time, it can also get on your nerves.

The focus is on a working-class Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx. Lee and his co-writers, Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli, are treading on chewed-up cinematic turf: how many more goomba-in-the-nabe movies can we stand? The most prominent characters are a philandering hairdresser, Vinny (John Leguizamo), and his faithful wife, Dionna (Mira Sorvino). The sex-obsessed, guilt-ridden Vinny has a bad case of Virgin-Whore Syndrome, driving him to other women for the down-and-dirty sex he can't ask his wife to perform. As Jimmy Breslin says in the movie, there are 8 million stories in the naked city. But why choose this one? Their squabbles aren't interesting.

Much more intriguing is Adrien Brody's Ritchie, a local kid who returns to the Bronx in full Brit-punk regalia, bad cockney accent and all. The bisexual Ritchie has other secrets--he's moonlighting in Manhattan as a stripper in a gay club, where he hustles on the side. When Son of Sam paranoia reaches the breaking point, he's the perfect scapegoat for his macho friends' fear and rage. Ritchie should have been explored more fully--he's the only character who's not an open-and-shut book.

This city-as-pressure-cooker tale bears obvious similarities to "Do the Right Thing." But the earlier film had an urgency that hurt, that made you examine your own preconceptions. "Summer of Sam," for all its flash and well-crafted fury, is only superficially disturbing. It's a nightmare stroll down memory lane: feel-bad nostalgia.