Movie Review – Summer of Sam (1999)

Director: Spike Lee

Stars: John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino, Jennifer Esposito, Michael Badalucco and many others.

It’s 1977 in New York City. Temperatures are rising in a heatwave, as are frustrations and anger. Meanwhile, a serial killer (Badalucco) has started shooting couples who are making out in cars. Against this backdrop of a city in turmoil, Vinny (Leguizamo) is trying to come to terms with the guilt caused by his cheating on his wife, Dionna (Sorvino). His friend Richie (Brody) has returned and struck up a relationship with the ‘popular’ Ruby (Esposito). They and their friends try to eke out a living as the news of the killings ripples through their community.

I’m actually reading Leguizamo’s autobiography at the moment and he talks about how he stole this film from Brody. Richie was supposed to be the main character, but Lee liked Leguizamo’s improvising so much that he kept expanding and expanding his role until he was the star. But really, this film is not just about Vinny or Richie, it’s about the city as a whole in one small window of its history. The serial killings are a thread that weaves through the story but it’s never really about the killings, in the same way that it’s not really about Vinny’s guilt. I’ve read some criticism that the plot is meandering, and it’s true but I see that as a positive. I like that the movie shows these different aspects of the city, and the people within it.

Vinny and most of his friends aren’t the type of people you’d necessarily want to know in person. They’re not likeable, but they feel real, which is what you need in this type of film. It shows the effects groupthink can have, and also highlights the dangers of bigotry and prejudice. I can see why the unfocused nature of the film would bother some people but I happen to love it.

Summer of Sam is also beautifully shot with some breathtaking sequences that had me gripped. Married with the excellent soundtrack, it’s a film that is a feast for the senses. Every scene is brimming with energy and it had me utterly engrossed. It is a long film, but it’s the type that unfolds naturally and takes you along for the ride. I found all of the characters interesting, and this is due to some great performances. The actors completely inhabited their characters and I was hooked from start to finish.

I can’t recommend this film highly enough. I think it’s fantastic, and I love the meandering, organic way the film unfolds. It really can’t be summed up in just a plot description because the performances, cinematography, and soundtrack bring so much of the film to life that mere words do not do it justice.

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