Summer of Sam Bursts With Trying to Be Important

Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam , from a screenplay by Victor Colicchio, Michael Imperioli and Mr. Lee, has little to do with the serial murderer Son of Sam, who finally turned out to be David Berkowitz, a Yonkers mailman, and even less with the police procedures in place during the hunt.

In a cable interview with Delroy Lindo, Mr. Lee said the original screenplay dealt entirely with a Bronx Italian-American community transformed into a lynch mob by all the media hysteria over Son of Sam. According to Mr. Lee, he expanded the material by making it an epic of New York in 1977 complete with heat waves, power failures, Studio 54, Plato’s Retreat and the indefatigable journalistic mug-raker Jimmy Breslin to whom Mr. Berkowitz wrote a series of loony letters during the killing spree.

The eminent Mr. Breslin, a fellow alumnus of John Adams High School in Queens, makes a cameo appearance in the film to establish the reality of Son of Sam for that large portion of the audience to whom 1977 is ancient history. To my knowledge, Mr. Breslin has not clearly established whether he made up his own lines or had them written for him. He speaks of 1977 as if it were the Dark Ages next to prosperous and virtually crime-free New York in 1999. All I can say is that the summer of 1999 ain’t over yet, the murder rate in New York is steadily rising again, though the Mayor of New York hasn’t called a press conference to announce this ominous development, and there is another serial murderer on the rampage out in the hinterlands and on the front pages of New York’s tabloids.

The big question is why we need to resurrect the Son of Sam story 22 years later, particularly after a recent high school massacre has made everyone more sensitive to violence in the media. Of course, Mr. Lee had his movie in the pipeline before all the recent unpleasantness hit the fan. Still, why did he highlight the murders with brightly orgasmic illumination, and monster-shoes camera angles to conceal the face of the murderer as if his identity were a tantalizing mystery? This is trashy exploitation at its clumsiest. Once more, a Spike Lee movie has been undone by the earnestness of being important.

Not that his central two-couple plot with its Greek chorus of Italian-American crackheads, knuckleheads and road-company mafiosi can stand on its own wobbly legs. For one thing, the steady stream of four-letter-word invective makes the salty exchanges between Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) sound like Jane Austen dialogue. Adrien Brody as the victimized Ritchie, a spike-haired, bisexual, pseudo-British-punk-rock-accented guy from the neighborhood, and Jennifer Esposito as his reformed sluttish girlfriend give the most sympathetic performances simply by not screaming and swearing at each other at every opportunity. The same cannot be said for the excruciatingly abusive scenes between John Leguizamo as the coke-sniffing, super-stud-adulterer Vinny and Mira Sorvino as his long-suffering but eventually enraged nice Italian-American wife Dionna. After dragging Dionna to the infamous Plato’s Retreat, and encouraging her to engage in the extracurricular entertainment, he has the unmitigated gall to call her a whore and a dyke with all the machismo he can muster from his dope-befuddled brain.

I hate to use the reverse racist card on the self-righteous Mr. Lee, but if an Italian-American director caricatured and defamed African-American characters in Bed-Stuy as Mr. Lee demonizes Italian-Americans here, we’d never hear the end of it. In his much overrated Do the Right Thing (1989), Mr. Lee’s Bed-Stuy was miraculously free of the slightest whiff of marijuana, much less any of the hard stuff that allegedly abounds in African-American neighborhoods. The reason I hate to bring this issue up is because until recently Hollywood’s treatment of African-Americans was monstrously unfair and unjust, and, even now, there is a certain squeamishness at play on the silver screen. Hence, my strong reservations about Mr. Lee as an artist do not extend to the blanket denial of the virulent racism that still infects the Western world, here and abroad. But as a critic, I cannot deny the evidence of Mr. Lee’s pomposity and pretentiousness as a filmmaker and shrewd self-promoter.

There’s Something About Masturbation

Paul Weitz and Chris Weitz’s American Pie , from a screenplay by Adam Herz, has generated some favorable buzz on the preview circuit, and I can understand why. Its modestly likable qualities would have consigned it to the commercial scrap heap reserved for sanely, balanced, fair-minded, chucklesome comedies like Election . Mere chuckles won’t make it with the targeted first-week audience of guffaw-seeking yahoos turned on by the promise of public urination in Big Daddy . Hence, Messrs. Weitz and Herz were compelled by the laws of the current marketplace to disguise the essential decency and vulnerability of their characters with the prescribed assortment of outrageous embarrassments over masturbation, excremental explosions, urinary disorders, premature ejaculations and a particularly sneaky Internet peep show. The faint of heart among my readers are forewarned, and yet I found myself kindly disposed to the rueful skepticism in the movie toward the sexist preoccupation of teenage males with the jock-jerk ideal of “scoring” at all costs. That is to say, American Pie somehow transcends its feeble contrivances by establishing an unusual parity of perception and consciousness with both sexes, and that is harder to do than it looks.

Nonetheless, American Pie has been mystifyingly likened to Bob Clark’s Porky’s (1981), Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), and Peter and Bobby Farrelly’s There’s Something About Mary (1998) for the grossest and most superficial reasons, though American Pie is closer to the trenchant feminism of Ridgemont High than the terminal piggishness of Porky’s . As for the merry magical Mary of Cameron Diaz, there is no comparable beacon of delectable female virtue in American Pie . Indeed, there are no gods and goddesses of either sex in the world of the Weitz brothers. And the cast of the lesser-known performers adds to the aura of a tumbledown democracy at the senior prom. But don’t expect any great moments of dramatic resolution in this subtly civilized contribution to the genre that will be with us into the next millennium. But at least movies like Election and American Pie suggest that even high school stories can be filmed with feeling and intelligence.

Sex After High School

Olivier Assayas’ Late August, Early September is the kind of French movie (hee-hee) I can recommend only to hard-core intellectuals like me. Imagine: This is a movie not only about people who read books, but write and criticize them as well. Yet their lives are unusually messy and stormy, and, of course, there is much sex and more than a little gourmet cooking as well.

We are in Paris amid lives that are endlessly in transition between solvency and penury, between success and failure, between life and death. A new French actor named Mathieu Amalric dominates most of the scenes as Gabriel, a kind of literary middleman who constitutes a one-man admiration society for an esoteric novelist named Adrien (François Cluzet) who may or may not be dying of a mysterious illness. Meanwhile, Gabriel is changing apartments and girlfriends, shifting from a stable relationship of intellectual equals with Jenny (Jeanne Balibar) to the younger and less challenging Anne (Virginie Ledoyen), who is more into kinky sex and emotional breakdowns than any placid life of the mind.

Mr. Assayas, who was somewhat overrated for the media-bashing Irma Vep (1997), may be underrated for the less facile and less gimmicky Late August, Early September . He uses the hand-held camera a great deal, but his wonderfully persuasive actors keep bailing him out when he seems to be thrashing about in an excessively expressionist manner. His characters virtually demand that you take them on their own terms and no one else’s, but they never become completely disconnected from any recognizable reality as is so often the case in the tortured films of Alan Rudolph.

Late August, Early September comes closer than any movie I can remember to capturing the nuances of relationships between overarticulate characters who can’t figure out where they really stand with each other. This hell of uncertainty is a very special place for the discerning moviegoer to visit. Mr. Amalric’s wondrously probing eyes are alone worth the prices of admission.

Wild Wild Waste

Barry Sonnenfeld’s Wild Wild West , from a screenplay by S.S. Wilson, Brent Maddock, Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman, from a story by Jim Thomas and John Thomas, is ironically based on a popular television series that was taken off the air in 1969 by a network responding to governmental outrage over violence in the media in the wake of the previous year’s political assassinations, and youth riots over the Vietnam War. The more things change, etc.

Wild Wild West may be the silliest movie in a season of silly movies, and is certainly one of the most expensive. Forget the body count and all the explosive devices. Forget all the coy visual and spoken suggestions or hidden agendas in the flurry of cross-dressing disguises. Forget that Salma Hayek’s charms are completely wasted in a PG-13 part, and Will Smith and Kevin Kline reduced to the kindergarten level of a buddy-buddy romance. Finally, forget all the ruinously expensive special effects. They’re not worth a minute of your time, much less two hours of mind-boggling mediocrity.