Summer of Sam

Directed by Spike Lee
Starring: John Leguizamo, Mira Sorvino, Adrien Brody, Jennifer Esposito.
MPAA Rating: R for strong graphic violence and sexuality, pervasive strong language and drug use.

Review by Matt Heffernan
July 2, 1999

The Summer of 1977 was a very turbulent time for this country, especially in New York. The heat was unbearable, drug use was at a peak, Elvis died and was replaced by disco and punk, and a man named David Berkowitz terrorized the Bronx. Not that I remember any of that. I was more concerned with "Sesame Street" at the time.

But Spike Lee remembers. At that same time, he began his career as a film director. During his freshman year of college, his parents bought him his first movie camera for the Christmas of 1976. Ten years later he would take the art houses by storm with She's Gotta Have It. Then came his masterpiece, Do the Right Thing, which permanently made him a top director. Until now, his films have dealt primarily with the African-American community, and the dynamics within it and with other groups. Summer of Sam is his first film to have a predominantly white cast.

The original screenplay was written by Victor Colicchio and Michael Imperioli. Imperioli, a member of Lee's stock company, brought it to him so that Lee would produce it and he could direct. Lee eventually took on the job of direction himself. This situation has led to a very different "Spike Lee Joint" (what he calls his films) from what people are used to.

The film takes place in a small Italian neighborhood in the Bronx that has had two of Berkowitz's victims shot in its "Lovers' Lane." John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino play Vinny and Dionna, a young married couple from the neighborhood. Vinny compulsively cheats on Dionna because he is embarrassed to express to her what his real sexual desires are. One night, he turns to Dionna's cousin for his gratification. Their activity in his Camaro is disrupted by another parked couple honking at them. They drive away, but later that night Vinny picks up Dionna and drives her past the same street on their way home, and he discovers that the same couple was killed by the ".44 Killer" (who would be later known as "Son of Sam").

Vinny now adds survivor's guilt to the guilt of cheating on his wife. At this low point he is reunited with his old friend Ritchie, who has become a punk rocker that occasionally affects a British accent. Ritchie returns to a neighborhood which will no longer accept him. The other guys on the block are now suspicious of him. In fact, the murder spree has the whole city paranoid. Anybody who appears to be at all different is suspected to be the killer.

The film is not so much about Berkowitz or his killings. None of the victims are significant characters in the film. The actor playing Berkowitz is only on the screen for a few quick scenes. The film is really about how he added to the frenzy of the time.

Lee knows how to work with a large ensemble, and he proves it here. He keeps up the pace by switching between Vinny's and Ritchie's perspectives, and spends time with the other characters in between. But these different perspectives sometimes seem like they belong in different films. The tone shifts between drama, comedy, and horror in a sometimes jarring fashion. Like Martin Scorsese, Lee likes to contrast the on-screen action with popular music, which he also does quite well. In some cases, however, this makes the purpose of the scene confusing. Which of these tones is he going for?

Perhaps it is just a reflection on the setting of the film. This crazy time still haunts the surviving families of the victims. Some of them have spoken out against this film; even Berkowitz himself has joined the opposition. But Lee defends his film, and rightly so. The people who do not want it to be shown have not seen it. Their is no glorification or exploitation of those killings. This is just a story that Lee wanted to be told.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Summer of Sam (1999)

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Review © 1999 Matt Heffernan