Wildly mixed, the "Summer of Sam" reviews range from glowing to scathing. Three issues persistently resurface throughout the review pieces: 1.) the film's presentation of Berkowitz, 2.) the film's portrayal of Italian-Americans, and 3.) the film's overall length. Concerning the presentation of Berkowitz, the minimal screen-time designated for Berkowitz's "character" has received diametrically opposed criticism. Many critics praise Lee's unusual method as a tasteful, intriguing manner in which to depict a serial shooter's madness. Nonetheless, while Lee's supporters insist that Berkowitz's limited screen-time prevents the film from being relegated to the horror genre, other critics believe that the shooter's portrayal is ridiculously slight. In this instance, Lee is accused of circumventing controversy by "playing it safe." Addressing Lee's treatment of Italian-Americans, most critics find his depiction alarmingly stereotypical. Saturated in machismo, the film's Italian-American characters are unarguably vulgar, close-minded, and violent. Countless critics perceive this treatment as not only racially insulting but artistically cliched; nonetheless, several critics have defended Lee's approach. While many have declared Lee's characters as accurate for the time period, one critic simply declares Lee's formulaic characters as little more than "local color." Finally, even those critics who passionately celebrate Lee's film deem it excessively long. With regard to Berkowitz's cameo-like appearances, many critics believe that the film's fictional angle could have been successfully curtailed to create a more balanced (and shorter) film. Much to Lee's credit, critics have neither disputed the accuracy of his portrayal of Berkowitz nor the accuracy of his recreation of the summer New York City was held hostage by a single man.
- Carr, Jay. "Acting Sizzles in 'Summer.'" Boston Globe 2 July 1999: D1.
- A predominantly positive review is offered by the Boston Globe's Jay Carr. While numerous critics deem the sporadic inclusion of Berkowitz as exceedingly sparse, Carr finds this technique highly effective: "Lee brilliantly solves the problem of how to present Berkowitz without turning the film into a splatter movie or police procedural." Moreover, while many critics fail to connect scenes depicting Berkowitz to the film as a whole, Carr keenly notes that "although Berkowitz lurks unsettlingly around the edges of the film, it mostly deals with the destabilizing effect he has on an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx." In sum, Carr gifts accolades to both the cast and storywriters while commending Lee's overall approach to this potential landmine of a subject.
- Clark, Mike. "Overheated 'Summer of Sam' Spike Lee Skims Through the 70's on the Shoulders of a Killer." USA Today 2 July 1999: 6E.
- Clark delivers a generally negative review with tasteful humor. Akin to many critics, Clark deems the film excessively long: "You come out of Spike Lee's typically ambitious ‘Summer of Sam' thinking you've also seen Sam's spring, winter, and fall -- not to mention his cousin twice removed and the latter's refrigerator repairman." On a more serious note, Clark questions Lee's sensitivity to Berkowitz's real-life victims in declaring that the film "does conjure up enough queasiness to raise the question of taste." In sum, while Clark applauds Lee's effort, he ultimately dismisses the film as a minor failure.
- Corliss, Richard. Rev. of Summer of Sam. Time 5 July 1999: 75.
- Steeped in hateful sarcasm, Corliss' review transcends the definition of "negative." Minus the venom, Corliss essentially declares the film inappropriately long and devoid of any character depth. Most biting of all, although Corliss acknowledges that both original screenwriters are Italian-American, he still accuses the film of the "ethnic defamation" of this nationality. In totality, Corliss would like nothing more than to eradicate this film from existence.
- Ebert, Roger. "Scapegoats of 'Summer'; Serial Crimes Bring Out Worst in Bronx Neighborhood." Chicago Sun-Times 2 July 1999: 31.
- In his comprehensive and insightful review for Ebert reminds his readers just why he is one of the world's most respected film critics. Included in his thorough synopsis of the film, Ebert provides ample historical detail. For instance, in Ebert's recount of the film's sexual aspects the reviewer explains, "The summer of 1977 was the height of the so-called sexual revolution; Plato's Retreat was famous and AIDS unheard of, and both of the principal couples are caught up in the fever. Vinny and Dionna experiment at a sex club, and Ritchie gets involved in gay porno films." While Ebert's inclusion of corresponding historical detail assists in validating the film, his personal opinion does likewise. His sentiment overwhelmingly positive, Ebert exclaims, "Lee has a wealth of material here, and the film tumbles through it with exuberance," and makes clear that "‘Summer of Sam' vibrates with fear, guilt and lust. It's not about the killer, but about his victims -- not those he murdered, but those whose overheated imaginations bloomed into a lynch mob mentality." By far, Ebert's overall review is the most balanced and informative that I've located.
- Maslin, Janet. "Red Hot Buttons in Lee's Steaming 'Sam.'" New York Times 2 July 1999: E1.
- Charged with enthusiasm, Maslin presents an overwhelmingly positive review of Lee's film. As Maslin bestows endless kudos upon the film's cast for their dynamic performance, she extends similar compliments to the cinematographer and writers. Interestingly, whereas Lee's extensive use of sex, obscene dialogue, and stereotypical treatment of Italian-Americans are condemned by critics, Maslin simply declares these devices "a legitimate sign of the times." Ironically, Maslin expends such great energy on defending the film that she virtually omits any criticism of Berkowitz's portrayal.
- Rozen, Leah. Rev. of Summer of Sam. People Weekly 12 July 1999: 34.
- Any reader could easily sustain whiplash from Rozen's "mixed" review. While perturbed by both the film's length and seemingly gratuitous sex-scenes, Rozen compliments the film's vivacity. Furthermore, Rozen delights in Lee's effective characterization of Berkowitz's hallucinations (specifically, the scene in which "Harvey the Dog" literally instructs Berkowitz to commit murder). Although Rozen does not deem the film an utter disappointment, she does yearn for more clear-cut substance. In the final analysis, Rozen writes that Lee's film merely "earns a halfhearted Bronx cheer."
Turan, Kenneth. "Movie Review; 'Summer' and Livin' Ain't Easy; Spike Lee's Latest Movie Attempts to Weave Together Many Elements Into a Chaotic Tale of Life in the 70's." Los Angeles Times 2 July 1999: F1.