Summer Of Sam (1999)

Director: Spike Lee

Starring: John Leguizamo, Adrian Brody, Mira Sorvino, Jennifer Espostio, Ben Gazzara, Bebe Nuewirth, Patti LuPone

Written by: Victor Colicchio, Michael Imperioli and Spike Lee

Running Time: 142 mins

Original UK Cert: 18

Original UK Release: 14th January 2000

It would have been so easy to have made a movie about the notorious serial killer known as Son Of Sam but director and co-writer Spike Lee, so as not to upset the victim’s families, decided not to glorify the mass murderer but see it from the point of view of a small community during that reign of terror. A perfect idea, I hear you say. So how did it go so wrong?

1977 New York. A long hot summer is fueling the mind of a maniac. A cold-hearted killer who is randomly murdering innocent victims in their cars. In a small area of the Bronx, members of the Italian-American  neighborhood are suffering from paranoia and suspicion as they attempt to lead their lives. Vinny, married to Dionna, is a hairdresser with a passion for the women while his best friend, Richie, a punk who plays in a band and wants to British, is considered weird by Vinnie’s friends. While Vinnie is out with the ladies, Richie is hiding a dark secret. Could he be the killer that is terrorising the streets?

Lee’s film plays on similar lines to his earlier hit, Do The Right Thing: tensions building in a small neighbourhood during a heatwave. It also longs to be Goodfellas and Boogie Nights, with its impressive soundtrack and overall feel of the last days of disco. Visually, Lee hits the nail on the head and along with the costumes, the music and the whole sense of heat, it works perfectly.

The whole idea of seeing these events from the eyes of those who are not connected but may become the next victim is also a powerful source for material. When something so horrific is happening on your doorstep, you immediately are concerned about your loved ones and yourself. So you have a foreboding sense of dread. Again, that works.

So what doesn’t work? Everything else, that’s what. At a hefty 142 minutes it’s a long haul. Sometimes painfully long and when you analyse why it feels longer than it is, there is only one solution: the characters. These are incredibly loathsome individuals who, if you saw them coming towards you on the street, you’d instantly cross the road. They are vile. They are obnoxious. They are stereotypes of Italian-American, a criticism that has been labelled against the film. These wannabe gangsters have nothing to offer except violence and expletives. As far as character development is concerned, it seems that has been left on the cutting room floor. You don’t want to spend 142 minutes with these people. You barely want to spend ten!

It’s not that the actors aren’t good. There is quality here. John Leguizamo is one of the most underrated actors around and always gives a good performance but here, Vinnie is such a snake, such a sickening, depraved individual, you wonder what his wife ever saw in him. With his disco swagger and fine suits, he leaves his wife in a club so he can have sex in the back of a car with her cousin!

Before he became an Oscar winner, Adrian Brody was always going to slightly off-beat characters and Richie is no exception. With his spiked hair (that later becomes a Mohawk), Union Flag Tee-shirt and fake British accent, you think, at last, an interesting character who just happens to be the other side of the musical spectrum. Then the dark secret is revealed and you aren’t even the least bit surprised. Yet it goes no where. If you are going to give us something that is scandalous, don’t just use it to shock.

The women don’t fare any better. Mira Sorvino is better than the material she is given as Vinnie’s wife. There are moments when she shines here but those moments are few and far between and she becomes a sexual plaything for Vinnie. Jennifer Espostio, as Richie’s girlfriend,  gets next to nothing to do.

This is a massively missed opportunity. What is so painful about it is that you can see a decent, fascinating film about paranoia here, if only we were given characters we cared about, we could emote with. I didn’t care one bit if these people lived, died or what. I just didn’t want to invest in so much time with them. Spike Lee is a talented director and has proved his worth but here, he definitely hit a bum note.


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