No stranger to controversy, Spike Lee has been dogged by criticism of "Summer of Sam" since cameras began rolling a year ago on this messy tale of the physical and emotional devastation wrought by serial killer David Berkowitz, who terrorized New York from midsummer 1976 to July 1977, leaving six dead and as many wounded.
One victim's parents accused Lee of exploiting the murders for profit; for the record, so did the imprisoned Berkowitz, a.k.a. Son of Sam. Some fans of the once-visionary filmmaker took him to task for abandoning African-American actors in favor of an all-white cast. And scenes with graphic violence, sex and record-breaking profanity had to be trimmed to avoid a NC-17 rating. Lee will doubtless benefit from the bashing, but word of mouth following the release may shoot it back down.
"Summer of Sam," bolstered only by the blue-chip performance of Adrien Brody as a misunderstood misfit, is mostly defined by its structural shapelessness. It's a mess, a textbook example of a bloated, overlong movie -- nearly 2 hours -- done in by its creators reluctance to trum away the excess.
Jimmy Breslin, the columnist who once received letters from Berkowitz, plays himself in grainy segments that bookend the film. A wooden Breslin relates the existence of "8 million stories in the naked city." Lee tries to cram them all into a single viewing.
"Summer of Sam" centers on the friendship between Vinny (John Leguizamo), a hairdresser unable to keep his hands off the clientele, and Ritchie (Brody), a spike-haired punker living a secret life as a dancer at a gay club. Vinny can't quite connect with his new bride (Mira Sorvino), and their annoying dysfunction is made amply evident. Ritchie takes steps toward a relationship with Ruby (Jennifer Esposito), the neighborhood's most promiscuous girl.
Berkowitz (Michael Badalucco) is glimpsed mostly in short, eerie segments, ransacking his filthy apartment and using children's alphabet blocks to spell out the horror to come. Meanwhile, heart-stopping fear has area residents staying inside at night and making up their own lists of suspects.
The snippets of scenes with Berkowitz are unremittingly bleak, until the pointedly funny moment when his black Labrador retriever, Sam, opens its mouth and speaks. And the director is riotous in his cameo as a nerdy TV reporter who speaks slowly so as not to stumble over his goofball delivery. Both are inspired touches, but not enough to overcome Lee's inability to make a sensible fit among the film's competing elements.