[Movie Review] Summer of Sam

Summer of SamStarring: John Leguizamo, Mira Sorvino, Jennifer Esposito, Adrien Brody, Anthony LaPaglia
Director: Spike Lee
Genre: Drama
Cert: 18
Released: 1999

In the 1970s, New York was shaken by what was known as the “Son of Sam” murders. A satanical serial killer, called David Berkowitz, murdered late-night lovers parked in lay-bys and threw the whole city into panic and disarray.

Spike Lee takes the scenario and studies the effect that this time of uncertainty had in the life of a small band of friends. Philandiring hairdresser, Vinny (Leguizamo – “Spawn”, “Romeo + Juliet”, “The Fan”, “Carlito’s Way”), is married to Dionna (Sorvino – “Mimic”, “Beautiful Girls”, Oscar Winner for role in “Mighty Aphrodite”). Vinny is notorious in his neighbourhood as a likeable smart-alec, but he’s got a womanising problem despite his obvious love for his wife. Dionna is a sweetheart, seemingly oblivious to Vinny’s ways but loyal to him and eager to please. In fact she is so eager to please, she even goes as far as to ask an ex-girlfriend of Vinny’s what sort of things he likes in bed.

Enter Ritchie (Brody – “Thin Red Line”), MIA for a while, he returns to the neighbourhood decked out as a punk rocker, complete with irritating over-emphasised London accent, desperately doing his best to ensure he never fits into society. We also meet a small selection of Vinny and Ritchie’s other friends, most of whom spend their time loitering around the streets and selling drugs.

A misconception about “Summer of Sam” is that it is a film about David Berkowitz. It is not. With few of the actual murders shown, the focus of the film are the characters who are affected by the serial killer hysteria which grips New York. It shows how kings of the neighbourhood like local mobster, Luigi (Ben Gazzara – “Big Lebowski”, “Thomas Crown Affair”), get shaken enough by the killer that they end up joining the cops in helping to track him down. We see Vinny terrified after having what he believes was a close run in with the killer, get a look at how fathers fret for the safety of their daughters and how all the young women are getting their hair dyed blonde after it becomes apparent that the killer likes to kill brunettes.

But “Summer of Sam” is a miserable failure in just about all areas. With little coverage of Berkowitz himself and hardly any exposure of the cops who are chasing him, the movie depends on the characters who are affected by the murders. Outside of the excellent Sorvino, few of the others deliver performances that are bearable. Brody’s punk-rock misfit role is as annoying a character as I’ve ever seen in a movie, and Leguizamo’s sleazy, womanising turn is one of the most unlikable celluloid appearances in a long time. I was longing for him to be killed and felt no sympathy for him throughout.

There is a small amount of entertainment to be gained from Vinny’s drug-dealing friends who are shown drawing up a short-list of likely and unlikely suspects for the Son of Sam. Eventually this leads to them forming a vigilante group which attacks anyone they suspect to be the killer – guilty until proven innocent. Obviously this is part of Lee’s attempt to display how people’s sense of reality and morality (these are drug dealers!) is lost in times of hysteria. But it is too late by then and your interest has waned so much that you long for the whole cast to be taken out.

I’m not Spike Lee’s biggest fan by any means, but this feature really must be his worst. Full of gratuitous sex and needless coarse language, “Summer of Sam” is unwatchable and utterly boring from start to finish.


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