The range with which Spike Lee is able to tell a story is pretty generally startling. That being said, his work during the eighties and the first half of the nineties all carry with it a similarity mostly due to subject matter – an afrocentricity that the director alone represents in Hollywood. Setting his work in various parts of New York work to unify Lee’s efforts. And for basically that reason alone, Summer of Sam (1999) makes sense within the director’s other efforts.
Working towards that New York state of mind, Jimmy Breslin, a journalist who received letters from David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam killer, opens the film with a brief summary of the times. 1977, the summer in New York, was a grossly hot time filled with enough black outs to make anyone troubled. But heap atop of that the city not knowing who was behind all of these outrageous murders created an atmosphere tempered with paranoia.
The story doesn’t focus on ‘the black perspective,’ a phrase uttered during various inserted pseudo-news segments helmed by Lee himself. Instead, the majority of the action focuses on a section of the Bronx where some of the murders have been committed. And as for the plot, it doesn’t flow so much as jerk from social group to social group with John Leguizamo’s Vinny character and Adrien Brody’s Richie finding themselves on screen most often.
That being said, each man’s trek through the summer is interwoven with a number of short interludes focusing on Berkowitz and his mental problems. As in past efforts, Lee moves between aspect ratios to impregnate scenes with unique emotions. The dog that’s causing the killer so much trouble comes off as something close to demonic, apart from the fact that every person that’s seen the film has probably encountered roughly the same situation.
The color palette for these inserts is a bit different than the rest of the film as well adding to the tone each scene is supposed to carry. Unfortunately, watching a half clothed man writhe around his tiny apartment, toss furniture across the room and scribble nonsense on the wall might elicit a few accidental laughs.
Even if the Son of Sam asides worked better, there’s still a lack of consistency in the film that can’t easily be explained away. And while Lee lived through the time detailed in this film, a great deal of Summer of Sam appears cobbled together from incomplete sources.