Summer of Sam (1999) – Movie Review

Finally, after experiencing a never-ending slew of bad films I’ve managed to watch something that was actually…quite mediocre. Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam ain’t a bad film, and even has some good scenes, but at nearly two and a half hours it goes on for too long. There are also a number of characters that come off as stereotypes (this is a “Spike Lee Joint” after all) and there are some scenes that could have easily been excised, mainly the scenes with the “Son of Sam” killer going cuckoo in his apartment. Here’s the obligatory plot summary:

The movie follows a group of Italian-Americans living in the Bronx in 1977, the year most notable in New York history for terrible heat, a major blackout (and the rioting and looting that ensues,) and of course, the “Son of Sam” killings. Vinny (John Leguizamo) is a hair dresser married to Dionna (Mira Sorvino) whom he’s cheating on. The movie opens the “Son of Sam” killer offing a couple of his victims. Vinny walks into the crime scene and sees the two bodies and is affected by the sight (I don’t know why police allowed him to get so close to the victims’ car in the first place other than plot-convenience.) Later on, Vinny is met with the return of long-time friend, Ritchie (Adrien Brody) who has transformed into a punk-rocker complete with the uniform of pins and spiky hair. His appearance shocks most but attracts Vinny’s half-sister, Ruby (Jennifer Esposito).

While the movie is entertaining, in parts, it’s also frustrating. For one thing, the movie is predictable. Early on I already knew that Vinny’s pals are going to go after Ritchie, believing that he is the “Son of Sam”. As a result, when that particular scene finally came, both its build up and the confrontation have barely any impact. There is also some of Spike Lee’s soap-boxing that is sprinkled throughout the movie. Spike Lee himself plays a reporter and in one scene interviews some black people and their views on the “Son of Sam” killings. One of the interviewees, an older woman, goes on about how things would have been a lot different if the “Son of Sam” was black and going after whites. While this might be true it has no reason to actually be in the film and seems more like an excuse for Spike Lee to insert some of his banal, race-baiting commentary that lacks insight into the mix. The scene might have worked but it just seemed blatant that Spike Lee just needed to preach despite it being unnecessary for the film.

Visually the movie is great. There are a couple of montages that are well-wrought and engaging to watch. But the editing is also bad in that, as mentioned before, a good thirty minutes could have been trimmed from the final product. What could have helped was removing the “Son of Sam” scenes as they are too goofy and weird, not to mention that they are cliche as well. There are also some gratuitous sex scenes that are uninteresting and reveal little about the characters. One scene takes place at the infamous “Plato’s Retreat” where Vinny and Dionna participate in an orgy. When Vinny’s character is having sex with two other women he watches his wife having sex with two other women. Her face obviously show that she’s very uncomfortable, but Vinny watches in disdain at his wife that she would have sex with people other than him, highlighting his hypocrisy. But even then this scene is ham-fisted.

Despite all this, Summer of Sam is not a “shit-film” though there are moments where hackiness spurs. Vinny and pals are often seen hanging out, drinking and doing drugs by a sign reading “dead-end”. There are also stereotypes, like Vinny’s pals who are the typical, masculine dolts that seem to serve more as symbols than actual characters. There is one bad scene where, when they couldn’t find Ritchie at CBGB’s, they come across a drunk that calls one of them a “guido.” They say they would let the drunk go if they say what his favorite baseball team is, but since it turns out it’s not the Mets they promptly beat his ass, partly to “shoot their load” after failing to get Ritchie. There’s also another character, Bobby Del Fiore (Brian Tarantina) who is the stereotypical, flamboyant gay. While this movie isn’t bad, what keeps it from being good is largely because it lacks maturity and settles for depicting stereotypes, which only bore the audience.

The technical aspects are fine, though some of the musical choices seem obvious (I think I heard Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” playing at one point, albeit in the background and not in your face with its obviousness.) The acting is okay, with the two female leads, Mira Sorvino and Jennifer Esposito, being the most consistent. Adrien Brody is good in some scenes but hammy and others, and while John Leguizamo is decent as Vinny when I was watching I kept wondering if they should have gotten someone better.

So yeah, this movie is alright or whatever. It’s better than CBGB at capturing late-70’s New York, but not by much. If I were to rate it Summer of Sam would lie somewhere in the five to six range, out of ten. I guess you can say Summer of Sam failed to…kill. What? You don’t like a good pun? Admittedly, that one wasn’t good. How about this: Summer of Sam? More like, BUMMER of Sam! HahaHAAAAAH! I’m so sorry.

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