The type of film that could only have been made by a misguided, overindulgent director, or – as is the case here – an actor parading as one, Sonny is nothing more than an actor's workshop masquerading as narrative cinema. Helmed by first-time director Nicolas Cage, Sonny revels in Big Emotions, uneven accents, destruction of surroundings and cliché. One person's Search for Emotional Truth is another's overblown acting class, and Sonny fails to engage on any other level than one of curious fascination as to just how far the Method will enamor and transfix certain actors and those who direct them.
Set in 1981 in that venerated version of the South (New Orleans here) which always seems to include overwrought, country-fried histrionics, Sonny at least begins quietly. Recently discharged from the Army and returning home to his mother and once-madame Jewel (Brenda Blethyn, cornpone and overzealous), Sonny (James Franco) appears forlorn and uncertain as he walks down Bourbon Street. After his surprise reception and introduction to his mother's lone prostitute Carol (Mena Suvari), Sonny informs Jewel that he is no longer interested in being a whore. (Interestingly, the word "gigolo" is not uttered once if memory serves). Jewel, not wanting to lose her prize asset (he's a "natural born whore" and "Adonis" that she trained herself), soon begins maneuvering to get him working again, while Jewel's hanger on / partner Henry (Harry Dean Stanton in typically haggard Harry Dean Stanton mode) encourages Sonny to move on.
With his dreams now centered on "squaring up," i.e., not being a whore anymore and joining mainstream society, Sonny aspires to work at a bookstore outside the city owned by the father of his Army buddy Jesse (Scott Caan, surprisingly subdued in a brief sequence). This does not pan out, nor does his first entry into the dating scene and "normal" relations, and soon Sonny is found screaming and hurling bottles against the wall. Disenchanted and disgusted, he slides back into his past life of hustling.
Sonny continues in this vein of resignation and disappointment, and takes a few distressingly sordid turns along the way (one, played for disgust, is handled horribly by Cage's direction; the other, played for irony, is in questionable taste at best.) As Sonny's downward spiral increases in intensity, Cage's attempts at summoning decadence and hothouse atmospherics are smothered by incoherence. Further, Franco's performance remains pitched at a ridiculously high level: he sulks, he smiles, he pouts, he tears down curtains, smashes things, etc. It is not that he is unable to achieve subtlety as an actor - Cage does not encourage it, or, for that matter, perhaps even allow it. Suvari tries her best to keep up, but Franco and Blethyn throw far better tantrums. Only Stanton and veteran Brenda Vaccaro (as Meg, one of Sonny's old tricks, and a nice casting touch at that) demonstrate any level of compassion and nuance.
According to his commentary track, Cage was contractually obligated to appear in Sonny in order to secure his desired cast, and appear he does late in the film as Acid Yellow, an extravagantly swishy operator of a male bordello in a spectacularly over-the-top yellow suit. (The outfit – it must be noted – was purchased from Liberace's personal collection.) As Sonny nears bottom and approaches Acid for some rough trade, Cage chatters aimlessly while Walter Murphy's "A Fifth of Beethoven" blasts in the background (Cage even has the good sense to throw in a false nose and two dyed poodles atop the bar). This sequence provides an interesting - and nearly offensive - interlude to the otherwise heavy tone of the script, and even though it is self-consciously shot from a distorted point of view and features some very glazed ham, it is a welcome relief after an hour and a half of moody, dour tedium.
Video: Presented in anamorphic widescreen with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, Sonny looks quite good. Cinematographer Barry Markowitz's visual tone is consistently warm and interesting throughout, which is all the more impressive given the time constraints (weeks as opposed to months) in shooting the film. Colors are intentionally saturated quite heavily, and almost all the interior sequences (most of which were shot in a home Cage purchased in the Quarter) are warm and gauzy. Although evidence of grain creeps in sporadically, Sonny is given a generally good transfer, especially for a low-budget project.
Audio: Sonny includes DD 5.1 and 2.0 English tracks. The 5.1 track is not dynamic and not particularly impressive, which is not surprising given the focus on the acting and dialogue. Composer Clint Mansell's evocative score is fairly well rendered, though the fronts get most of the activity. For an actor whose surname was reportedly chosen in admiration of an avant-garde musician / composer, Sonny boasts an appropriately eclectic mix of selections from Cage, including Rush ("Limelight," which he really cranks up), Bowie, Verdi, Bach, Wall of Voodoo, Devo and Patsy Cline.
English, French and Spanish subtitles are also included.
Extras: On board are two full length commentary tracks: one with director Nicolas Cage and producer Norm Golightly (partner with Cage in Saturn Films), and one with writer John Carlen. After initially describing the prospect of a commentary a "catch-22" (Cage is not fond of explanations for fear it will reduce the impact of the work), he settles in for an informative, casual track filled with anecdotes and appreciation. Golightly chimes in from time to time, but the track is essentially Cage's, and he makes decent use of it. Cage also notes that he did not want too many self-conscious camera movements (which often plagues first-time directorial efforts) to distract from the performances, which is ironic because – given the tone of the piece – nothing could distract from the performances as captured. He also expresses great affection for New Orleans and reminisces about many of his own experiences that informed his choices for the film.
Carlen notes that although Sonny is not exactly autobiographical, it is based on some personal experiences and has been worked on for over two decades. He often notes scenes that were either cut or truncated (he also mentions that his original script was 156 pages), and openly wishes that he had supplied more exposition and detailed motivations for some of the characters. It is an amiable and very appreciative track – he speaks frankly and highly of Cage's distinct contributions and his comments regarding Stanton are heartfelt and kind – and he often punctuates his comments with some robust laughter, which is sorely missing from the tale itself.
Both commentaries express admiration for Blethyn's accent (and each refers to the New Orleans' drawl as slowed-down Brooklynese), which continues to confound me even upon this writing.
Also included are cast and crew bios, and a trailer for the equally – and differently – poor Poolhall Junkies.
Final Thoughts: Fans of Cage and Franco may find themselves curious, and if so inclined, I recommend Sonny only as a rental. As for Franco, his turn in TNT's James Dean was so impressive that I expected something equally compelling here; regrettably, it is in many ways the very same performance. Moreover, since his looks and sullen demeanor are so reminiscent of Dean, if he does not begin to expand his repertoire soon he may find himself unduly pigeonholed. I suspect his potential is much, much greater, and I hope he chooses projects that will afford him room to grow as a performer.
As for Cage, his predisposition toward Acting! seems to have precluded sound directorial decision-making, and as such he has allowed Sonny to be strangled in the face of it.