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Sprawling, heavily populated, and blazingly didactic, Spike Lee’s latest and very nearly biggest joint calls to mind the muscular moviemaking of the ’50s. Lee is the millennial Elia Kazan, choosing subjects with lots of moral juice and room for both liberal anguish and Lee’s trademark—and still startling, in this age of smug conviction—ambiguity. In Summer of Sam, his style is brawny without feeling cliched, because his vision is so idiosyncratic—no other director could get away with filming an omniscient narrative-as-newsreel montage of fear-paralyzed New Yorkers turning locks and slamming windows shut.

That said, Lee is interested in what he’s interested in; the rest can go hang. So epics, even street epics, are hardly his natural medium. If a film is going to follow various characters as their ethics and assumptions are challenged over one explosive summer, then the man behind the camera had better tune in to everyone with more or less equal curiosity or affection.

The flashpoint summer of 1977 with its various scourges—including the at-large presence of the Son of Sam serial killer, a near-record-breaking heat wave, and a blackout followed by the requisite looting rampage—is a terrific excuse to talk about mob mentality, perceived difference, and the fine line between discontent and violence. Lee adds to the mix the burgeoning punk movement and changing social values within a traditionally macho community, and crafts a milieu—a stiflingly small-minded Italian neighborhood in the Bronx—that is as much an answer to his critics as it is a chance for the director to stretch. But Lee does himself no favors in concentrating on the “white ethnics” he’s been criticized for stereotyping in the past. He generally couldn’t care less about the cardboard disco-era Italians who eat pasta and talk tough with virtually indistinguishable yo-ness straight out of Goombah Central. It’s as if Lee is forcing himself to see things in a fresh light, even though there was nothing wrong with his old one. When a couple of cops appear to tap the local don for help in catching the Son of Sam, you can feel the film’s energy pick up; a zippy back story heightens the color and shading. Then they go away and are never heard from again. The local don, though, we do see occasionally, and he shoulda stood in bed.

What Lee wants to talk about is heat, paranoia, disorientation, and resentment, in the context of masculinity’s last stand, but in Summer of Sam he frames these subjects around scapegoats, and their sad stories dilute the free-standing potency of the emotions that whirl around them. Vinny (John Leguizamo) is a studly hairdresser who will do anything, anytime, with anyone female except his trusting wife, Dionna (Mira Sorvino). Meanwhile, Ritchie (Adrien Brody) returns to the neighborhood sporting a Union Jack T-shirt, bondage pants, spiked hair, and a really stupid British accent. All Ritchie wants is to pursue the liberation he’s found in the music of the Who—a reasonable enough goal for an imaginative but resourceless kid from the Bronx—and all Vinny wants is absolution from his wife and the kind of sexual free rein that was almost anachronistic even then. Between Vinny’s moral cowardice and Ritchie’s hopeless individualism, peace and common sense are crushed out with the same fetishistic machismo that made certain moments of Mo’ Better Blues and She’s Gotta Have It so jarringly unpleasant.

Leguizamo and Brody are masterful in these not entirely sympathetic roles. Leguizamo brings nuance and humanity to the stock part of the randy Italian in platforms; Brody untangles the ambiguities of his character—the bull-headed but yearning individualist; the sensitive boyfriend who works as a male stripper and prostitute in order to take care of his girlfriend, Ruby (Jennifer Esposito), the neighborhood slag with a virgin’s heart; the fearsome-looking punk rocker with a taste for the communal nostalgia of the Who. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast, with few exceptions, could have been played by sock puppets, and Leguizamo should win an Oscar for responding convincingly to Sorvino, who hasn’t the first notion of human behavior. (There are many long scenes in which we get to watch her dancing, which is a little like watching paint dry, except you don’t keep wondering why paint has no upper lip.)

Like the ham-handed moviemakers of times past who clutched their heads over moral subtleties but lit their conclusions in neon—Lee is enamored of the sign reading “Dead End” under which his crew of Brylcreemed smokers hangs out—Lee can’t put anything on a simmer, even if he doesn’t care about it. So a night out to see Ritchie and Ruby’s band play (the band’s called “Late Term Abortion,” one of the many careless anachronisms, along with Marlboro Lights, tongue piercings, and ironic ’70s retro) is just an excuse to forward Vinny’s tale of sexual paranoia and rage. He and Dionna roll up to CBGB unable to believe what they’re seeing. (Neither will anyone who was there in 1977—the scene outside as Lee envisions it is right out of Parent Fear magazine—a tongue-waggling, bird-flipping riot of spitting, snarling, Mohawked freaks in full combat and bondage gear.) Vinny and Dionna take off for tonier climes, are refused admittance to Studio 54, but swept off to Plato’s Retreat for an unpleasant orgy that becomes the crucible for their relationship, as well as Lee’s way of leaving no ’70s stone unturned.

Although Lee won’t turn down the heat, he is capable of turning it up; the center of the film explodes into total delirium, as “Baba O’Riley” plays over scenes of the locals going about their business—which in this atmosphere makes even mundane behaviors seem overheated, cruel, and extreme. Lee’s orneriness has made him fearless, and if such flammable stuff seems unfashionable, so is his measured enigmaticism, and so what? He can make the argument that the neighborhood’s process of coming together is actually its coming apart with dazzling clarity, despite the mush-mouthed characters.

The scenes of Son of Sam killer David Berkowitz throwing himself around his filthy apartment are scary and almost touching—Berkowitz’s isolation is in some ways emblematic of the self-contained New Yorker. The short, intercut scenes are packed with meaning and cumulative detail—the peeling walls, the humorless architecture of people-unfriendly tenements, the horrible need for self-expression that found such a lamentable outlet in Berkowitz’s crazy and terrifying letters to journalists. The black Labrador retriever in whose barking Berkowitz found a lame but useful excuse finally appears inside the killer’s apartment, and Lee’s sure, light hand with these scenes pays off grandly. The dog talks not just to Berkowitz but to us, saying, “Kill—I want you to kill,” in the rounded tones of a BBC radio announcer, and suddenly everything about this madman—the flies buzzing around half-finished plates of food, the mad red writing on the walls, the sticky green light in which he’s filmed—seems ridiculous: He is the prototypical psycho killer who deserves nothing but our contempt. Lee doesn’t care much about Berkowitz, either, despite the keen-eyed fascination with which he rigs the killer’s short scenes, but he does know a good McGuffin when he sees it. Most importantly, better than any director working today, he recognizes that, whatever other factors are at work—even factors as lurid as Studio 54, Elvis Presley’s death, the Yankees-Dodgers rivalry, and 104-degree heat—the dangerous, unchanging undertows of American violence are race, class, and social misery. CP