Searching For Sonny is plucky. Plucky, and nice. Plucky, nice, and it looks pretty good for having been made on a low budget, and the cast is game and committed to their roles, and the story seems to have had a decent amount of thought put into it. Yet, the experience of watching the movie is that of "less than the sum of its parts," because for all the hard work and clever thinking and time that's been invested here, the film feels less like it's out to do something new and more like it's out to do things that everyone liked in other movies and television shows.
Elliot (Jason Dohring) is back in his hometown for the first time in years, in order to attend a high school reunion. At the end of senior year, he and his best friend Sonny had a falling out that's lasted until the present day, and Elliot, driven by his lack of success elsewhere in life, is determined to bury the hatchet with his old pal. Unfortunately for Elliot, he finds everyone but Sonny: his other friend Gary (Brian McElhaney), his obnoxious brother Calvin (Nick Kocher), and his gorgeous ex Eden (Minka Kelly), who tells him Sonny's gone missing. Suddenly, he and his friends are tied up in a frantic investigation into Sonny's disappearance, and its mysterious ties to the play Sonny wrote -- the same one that caused Sonny and Elliot to fight in the first place.
Without giving too much away, it's a little too easy to see the gist (if not the specifics) of what's going to happen almost immediately. Elliot is a bit of a burn-out, Gary is a blubbering chicken and Calvin is aggravating. These are not the three smartest detectives who ever lived, so the conclusions they arrive at and how they arrive at them are more told than revealed, and their ultimate discovery is pretty obvious. This might be okay if Sonny was a funnier comedy, but with the exception of McElhaney (whose perpetual flop sweat is more amusing than it has any right to be), this earns more smiles than actual laughs. The character of Calvin also threatens to sink the movie at any moment: he's The Audience Favorite, a loudmouth dope whose every move is calculated to be as outraaaageous as possible, because isn't that just hilarious? To his credit, Kocher only plays him 70% as loud and smug as is possible, which barely keeps the role in "tolerable" territory.
The story of Searching For Sonny is laid out by a narrator (Clarke Peters). I've been re-watching "Arrested Development" recently, so I may be biased, but the tongue-in-cheek tone of the voice-over and split-second edits of visual information or repeated music cues as gags feel indebted to that show. The direction does deserve some praise, particularly for the occasional jump to a flashback or a vision, which make good use of color and negative space to create something visually interesting (without spending a dime). On the other hand, many non-fantasy sequences do seem sparse or cheap, such as the aggressive close-ups of Elliot alone in his apartment at the beginning of the movie.
We live in an era in which most films are repurposed, regurgitated, remade, rebooted. Everything looks or sounds like something that came before it, and what was once a hat tip or a wink has become the fabric from which films are constructed. Searching For Sonny is far from a bad movie, but it's derivative in the most distressing way: it seems like nobody even considered that you could make this movie without framing it inside a film noir or including geeky references, or that more time ought to be spent on making the characters feel complete than on the pleasant visual style.
The Blu-Ray, Video and Audio
It was marked as a Blu-Ray in the DVDTalk screener pool. That's probably because it has the Blu-Ray logo on the disc. That disc is also clearly a Blu-Ray, evidenced by the protective coating on the data side. I popped the disc into my Blu-Ray player and watched it on my TV, to take advantage of the 1080p picture and the DTS-HD Master Audio. But when I finished watching the movie and returned to my computer to pop the disc in for vital stats, I was told what I watched was a MPEG-2 video file with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. No idea what's up with the disc I was sent, but obviously I can't sound off on the video or audio (or packaging) unless I see a retail copy, which I would hope is actually in HD.
Following a very brief "Welcome From the Cast" (0:44), we get five featurettes. "The Actors" (1:48), "The Spec Trailer" (1:14), "The Colonel" (2:55), "The Look" (0:47), and "The Narrator" (1:23) all reveal a little about a specific aspect of the film. The best is "The Colonel," which showcases the video the filmmakers sent Michael Hogan of "Battlestar Galactica" fame in order to get him into the film (frustratingly, "The Spec Trailer" doesn't actually contain the spec trailer -- music rights issues, maybe).
Outtakes get a whole section to themselves. First, a standard gag reel (4:18) packs in the usual flubs and crack-ups. "Calvin Hates Gary" (1:10) is an amusing line-o-rama of Kocher's ad-libs about the Gary character, then Gary himself takes the spotlight in a reel of romantic confessions called "Gary Loves Eden" (2:06). Finally, "Smelling Salts" (2:05) illustrates Dohring's struggle to get through a take of a specific scene without laughing.
Video extras finish with a very funny "Must Love Bears" (3:05) PSA, on a cause close to Andrew Disney's heart, and "Nick and Brian Audition" (5:25), which is -- wait for it -- footage of Nick and Brian auditioning.
Last but not least, there's an audio commentary by director/writer Andrew Disney and director of photography Jeff Waldron. As one would expect, given that the DP participated and the movie was shot for cheap, the commentary skews pretty technical, going into the tricks and strategies employed to make the movie look as good as it does for the money available. Probably of more interest for filmmakers than fans -- did nobody think to record a cast commentary for this one?
An original trailer and a Kickstarter Trailer are included on the disc. I also found several easter eggs (1:13, 1:24, 0:25, 4:04) scattered around the disc. A "Thanks For Watching" (0:21) farewell wraps everything up.
Searching For Sonny is indicative of the modern style-as-substance mentality: its mimicry is what's meant to make it special. Some of that work is lightly enjoyable (particularly McElhaney), but this pretty-looking lark is only maybe worth a rental.
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