Where ‘Summer of Sam’ Went Wrong

by Patricia Henderson

I should warn you, this retrospective on the 20th anniversary of Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam is going to make me sound like a prude. Despite the risk of said label, I maintain that this movie is just… too much. Too much of almost everything. So much profanity, it renders some dialogue nonsensical. So much sex, it was this close to an NC-17 rating.

I am far from the only one to find this problematic. In fact, upon the movie’s release in July of 1999, The Baltimore Sun’s review bore the headline: “‘Summer of Sam’ loses way in a sea of sex, dirty words.” That pretty well sums it up.

Summer of Sam

Image via IMDb

Issue #1: Too Much Profanity

Now, I am not exactly opposed to profanity in movies. Honestly, a movie like Summer of Sam would be a little ridiculous without it. These characters, especially in the rage-inducing heat of the summer of 1977, would curse. A lot. However, there comes a point where it is just ridiculous. And lazy screenwriting. There are more “F-bombs” in this movie than there are words that move the plot along. It actually held a record for the most instances of that word in a movie — 435 times — until it was dethroned by The Wolf of Wall Street in 2013.

Here’s just one example…

Ritchie (Adrien Brody): “All right. What do you want me to tell you? Get a [redacted] divorce, then.”

Vinny (John Leguizamo): “Divorce is [redacted] evil, Ritchie. You got some [redacted] really bad advice.”

Ritchie: “Evil spelled backwards is live.”

Vinny: “You’re a corny [redacted], you know that?”

Four lines of dialogue, four F-bombs. This is basically how the entire movie goes along. As I said, some would be fitting. Like maybe that final line, there. However, it reaches a point where profanity is all a viewer hears, and the story is buried. The movie is more memorable for holding that dubious F-bomb record all those years than for the plot or performances.

Summer of Sam

Image via Blog Berth.

Issue #2: Too Much Sex

The 1970s were a time of sexual liberation, experimentation, swinging, etc. I get that. However, there are encounters in the movie that could have easily been alluded to. Actually, Ritchie’s encounters with his Johns aren’t shown, they’re merely hinted at. Of course, the male on male sex being the only kind not shown begs some additional questions. But, we’ll let that lie for now.

When a film is virtually pornographic, it renders it less accessible. Summer of Sam isn’t something one can watch with family members, not even adult ones.  Not without a lot of uncomfortable laughter, and avoidance of eye contact, anyway.

Even though the plot revolves around New Yorkers‘ fear of the Son of Sam (initially called the .44 Caliber Killer), not so much the actual crimes, it still feels disrespectful to the victims. If you lost a loved one to a serial killer, would you want a movie depicting their death to contain so much sexual content? Probably not.

I understand why a movie depicting these events would have an “adult” tone to it. The issue is that it compromises the storytelling. They could have, for instance, developed characters further, or explored more of the fear element. Instead, way too much time was spent on Vinny’s sexual exploits. The movie wasn’t just about a man cheating on his wife, and it shouldn’t have been given so much focus.

Summer of Sam

Image via thedullwoodexperiment

Issue #3a: The Humiliation of Mira Sorvino

Perhaps now would be a good time to mention Mira Sorvino. Poor Mira Sorvino. She has said filming the orgy sequence (the start of which is pictured above) was awful, and, “demoralizing.” Granted, her character, Dionna, is also doing something she’s not really into. However, you can see in Sorvino’s eyes, that this goes beyond acting. This is not something she is cool with, and it isn’t happening the way she was told it would. Watching the scene the first time made me so uncomfortable, I’ve skipped it on subsequent viewings. Considering some of it was cut to avoid the NC-17 (adult film) rating, what she actually filmed was likely worse.

And then, there was Leguizamo spitting in her face, which Lee did not inform Sorvino was coming. So, that shock and disgust was real. The two men apparently cooked up the idea in secret, and just went for it. Is anyone else reminded of the Last Tango in Paris controversy, here? Do better, movie industry, just… do better. Please.

Summer of Sam

Blissfully unaware of how she’s about to be treated. Image via IMDb.

Issue #3b: The Maiming of Adrien Brody

While we’re discussing harm coming to the actors. Adrien Brody got hurt — more than once. There was a diner scene where Ritchie breaks a bottle over his head. Well, Lee told Brody said bottle would be made of breakaway glass, which is essentially made of sugar. It wasn’t. He really cut his head. Later, as Ritchie and Vinny are talking on the beach (a favorite scene of mine), Ritchie is holding a cloth to his head. That wasn’t just for continuity, it was necessary.

Have you ever noticed how Brody’s nose has been a little crooked since, oh, 1999? You can thank Spike Lee’s failure to hire proper fight choreographers. It was broken during the attack on Ritchie at the end of Summer of Sam. What’s worse, it is actually shown in the film. I had long suspected the shot was left in, and Brody has since confirmed it. In an interview, not to me personally (I wish!).

Brody was unable to have it straightened, just set. Basically, the story goes that the procedure to have it straightened would have altered his appearance. He wasn’t willing to go full Jennifer Grey. Never go full Jennifer Grey.

Summer of Sam

Adrien in 1993, and in 2003.

The Dog… Oh, the Dog.

In many movies, there are things you love, and things you hate. Then, sometimes, there is stuff that is just… “what the [redacted]?”

Nothing begs that question more than when David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz (Michael Badalucco) is visited by a dog. This is not an actual dog, but a hallucination. It orders him to go out and kill people. It is a total misfire.

First of all, the voice that comes out is that of Spike Lee Joint mainstay, John Turturro. Not at all scary. Secondly, the effects make the dog’s mouth resemble the Taco Bell chihuahua (RIP, Gidget). The dog then immediately goes back to looking like a regular dog after the kill order. I think Lee was aiming for menacing, here, but he landed squarely on ridiculous. I mean, just look at this:

Talent Utilization

There is one last thing I’d like to gripe about, and that is the imbalance of screen time. You have prolific actors such as Patti LuPoneBebe Neuwirth,  John Savage (234 acting credits on IMDb), and Ben Gazzara being criminally underused. Meanwhile, what should have been a director cameo goes on for far too long. I know Lee was a lead in Do the Right Thing, but he is not good here. Yes, he brings a little humor in, but it is delivered poorly. 

It even happens within the main cast. Ritchie — who was meant to be the lead, until Leguizamo started improvising to expand his role — and Ruby all but disappear in spots. Even though their relationship is one of the best things in the movie. I acknowledge I’m biased, but it honestly is. Ruby (the wonderful Jennifer Esposito) is treated like trash by virtually everyone, other than Ritchie. He is later similarly discarded by his so-called friends. That story deserved a little more development. What are we given instead? More screen time for Leguizamo’s trance/high faces, and sex faces. Even Mira Sorvino is underused here, and she’s the lead woman!

Summer of Sam

See there, four leads. Not one. Image via Touchstone.

Summer of Sam could have, nay, should have, been better. Looking at it 20 years out, through the lens of nostalgia, doesn’t really change anything. There are still way too many F-bombs and way too much sex. Oh, by the way… this movie was financed by Disney, right after they made a big proclamation about releasing cleaner things. Seriously.

It’s not that this is a terrible movie. It’s that so much time is wasted on things that ultimately don’t matter. Too little spreading the screen time wealth, too little care for the stars’ well-being, too little story. There isn’t enough of a movie here, which is really a shame. It’s not unwatchable. You might even enjoy it, if you’re a fan of Spike Lee or any of the leads. To paraphrase what Jimmy Breslin says of New York City in the film: “you may find you love it and hate it equally.” That’s kind of where I’m left sitting.

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Anonymous July 13, 2022 - 9:21 am

No, this is a really terrible, ill-thought out, indulgent, confused, bad bad bad taste film with gross overacting (the “Wise Guys”) with misogynistic undertones and homophobic OVERtones.

Film Review - The Lovebirds (2020) | MovieBabble June 2, 2020 - 9:31 am

[…] to avoid being overly graphic. The aforementioned profanity is used in a more natural way than in some films. It sounds like what real people would say in the given situation, rather than stringing profanity […]

Pamela Baker July 14, 2019 - 11:45 am

Too bad they didn’t do a true story of the “Son of Sam”. As one who hung out at Untermeyer Park – where they would have all their rituals. Also lived not too far from where David Berkowitz lived, so most of us did live in fear. People stopped going to the City. And yes, there actually WAS a dog, owner by his neighbor Sam Wheaty, which made the dog the “Son of Sam”. He did hear voices from the dog, and they would sacrifice animals in the deep wood of the Park.
Too bad they made the movie into a 70”s “Disco” movie. The true story was and is still very much talked about around here. Untermeyer Park had all these beautiful Greek sculptures, which they have now renovated the whole Park.

Nick Kush July 14, 2019 - 10:53 am

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