Review: Summer of Sam (1999)

Director: Spike Lee


The first scene of Summer of Sam shows the first two victims of David Berkowitz, the ‘Son of Sam’ (Michael Badalucco), sitting in a car preparing to go out to have fun in the balmy night in Pelham Bay. Before they or the audience know it, their blood is spattered all over the steering wheel and windscreen after several shots from Berkowitz’s .44 magnum. Spike Lee has made a serial killer movie, and it shows in every frame.

Truth be told, the serial killer aspect is only half the story. N.Y. 1977: Vinny (John Leguizamo) works as a coiffeur, is a demon on the dance floor and cheats on his wife Dionna (Mira Sorvino). Not that his infidelity concerns him, though. Vinny is a repugnant little puke, and here we find the first problem with SOS. Our lead character is unlikeable, and our sympathies are such that we wouldn’t be too vexed if ‘Sam’ actually did kill him, as his drug-fuelled fears tell him could happen. Of more interest is Vinny’s friend Richie (Adrien Brody), a local boy just returned from London with spikes in his hair and punk in his blood. He and his girlfirend Ruby (Jennifer Esposito) are rockers, out of place amongst the Bronx youth who still grease their hair and dance to ABBA. Richie’s behaviour is enough to convince Vinny that Richie is the Son of Sam. Also convinced are local mafiosi, led by Ben Gazzara’s Luigi, who seek to return order to their panicked roost. Meanwhile, the summer is abnormally hot, power cuts are occurring and the rumors about Richie are spreading. Brody’s performance is at the centre of all this chaos, and he makes for a very sympathetic rocker. We know he’s not the killer; he just wants to enjoy his music. He’s made all the more likeable by the stupidity of the mob  and Vinny’s continued infidelity and general douchebaggery.

Lee is often noted for his lack of subtlety, and his style of filming makes him particularly unsuited to a film chronicling the events surrounding real murders (Fincher got it right with Zodiac seven years later). The ‘70s setting allows him to borrow (steal?) from Scorsese and PT Anderson’s Boogie Nights; the look is great, but it’s been done before (a tracking shot into a disco is none more Goodfellas). Meanwhile, the murders and other scenes involving Berkowitz are as gentle as a brick to the face. Few of the victims are referenced by name, and a scene where Berkowitz is addressed by a neighbour’s dog (voiced by John Tuturro) is so utterly bizarre that it flirts with parody. It may be based on Berkowitz’s own testimony, but it’s still goofy as hell. Lee’s reverence for certain events allows his stylistic eye plenty of opportunities, but robs the events of much pathos. Furthermore, Lee’s script (written with Victor Collichio and Michael Imperioli) delves too much into some characters’ lives (Vinny and Dionna’s attempts to get into Studio 54, and the sex-party aftermath) whilst other characters barely get a look in (Anthony LaPaglia’s detective hints at a backstory, but is never fleshed out).

There’s a certain amount of entertainment value to Summer of Sam; the colourful look and Brody’s performance couldn’t but engage. However, the human element is sacrificed for gloss and shock. There’s plenty of blood, but not much of a heart to pump it.