Sonny. Where to begin?
Nicolas Cage: Director. Holy shit.
First, there is somewhat of a Woody Allen phenomenon happening here. You know how Woody Allen cannot really conjure any character beyond himself, be it due to narcissism or limited artistic vision? Nowadays, when he isn’t the romantic lead in his own films – which is thankfully not happening so much since the actresses he matches himself or unfunny/yucky Larry David with could be his granddaughters and would probably not have had sex with him unless they were being molested – he has started forcing a raft of other actors in his films to do impressions of him, because he still cannot really conceive of another genuine character besides himself.
Well, Nicolas Cage shows a bit of this, only in scattered scenes, but to a far more delightful effect. I’m not sure that James-Franco-as-Nic-Cage is wholly possible because the Cage stand-in, James Franco, cannot quite be contained, as evidenced in his non-stop enthusiastic self-promotion and relentless dilettanting™ during the decade since this 2002 film was made; therefore, the Woody Allen imitation schtick doesn’t get carried quite as far, which is both fortunate and telling, because Nicolas Cage is a FILM DIRECTOR VASTLY SUPERIOR TO WOODY ALLEN. You read it here.
But this is about Nicolas Cage, who is probably insanely narcissistic, and let’s face it, probably just insane, but this works to his advantage, especially in this hot mess of a film about a gigolo – well, they just call him a whore, repeatedly – who returns from the army and finds himself trapped right back in the whoring game, goaded by his mama, played by Oscar™-nominee Brenda Blethyn caterwauling in a New Awwlins accent that must be heard to be believed.
Oh yes, it’s set in New Orleans in 1981, before Katrina rode over the levies and just as AIDS began to cut into some of the rampant whoring.
But Sonny only services the ladies. He’s been taught to by his mama since he was a young boy, starting at age 12, to be precise. Eager ladies in question include Brenda Vaccaro, who has a rather vanilla yet somewhat hard fuck scene with one of her breasts hanging out as Franco pounds her in a motel room.
I know, you are already reaching for the remote. Sonny is streaming and is only seconds away.
But you haven’t been convinced yet! Not if you haven’t met the other characters. Mena Suvari, fresh off all the American Pie movies that I’ve never seen, is the new whore in the curiously small-time, two-person whorehouse run by Brenda Blethyn. Suvari and Franco has a love connection in a world where romantic love isn’t even for pretend. It’s just all fucking.
Well, not just fucking. There are “suit jobs,” one of which, fulfilling a wealthy matron’s cop fetish that goes a bit further than anticipated, seems to turn even Sonny’s stomach.
There is also Sonny trying to go straight, as in get a job in a book store and date nice girls with his old army buddy Scott Cann and not go on dates where he has to fight for the $300 fee he’s owed for power drilling high society ladies.
But even those attempts at the straight life end in disaster, mostly because Nicolas Cage has to throw in scenes where Sonny goes absolutely ape-shit berserk, destroying bathrooms and hurling television sets, Nicolas Cage-style.
And now to Harry Dean Stanton, Brenda Blethyn’s hard-luck, petty thief boyfriend with a gambling problem (Seymour Cassel is the card shark who won’t give him a break) and a lifetime of bad luck. He’s also got a secret! I won’t tell!
It’s a family film, of sorts.
A tragedy/revelation leads to the film’s climactic moment, when Sonny crosses the line from hetero-whoring into gay hustling, with disastrous results. Well, not entirely disastrous – the gay pimp, Acid Yellow, is played by a very famous actor (you get one guess who!) in a cameo scene that is the sweet psychedelic citrus that the film has been watering our mouths with up to this point. If you thought Brenda Blethyn’s drawl and southern affectations were over the top, you’ll have to brace yourself mightily for Acid Yellow.
The script by the now-deceased John Carlen, is outrageous and highly improbable, and to make matters more glorious, is purportedly autobiographical. It is overwrought and clichéd on so many levels that that it’s hard to imagine how Carlen managed to sell it.
Imagine Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams each taking a southern stab at a scene and then passing it back to the other playwright to see if the next scene could top it in a contentious competition of Louisiana languid luridness that leapfrogs over both writers’ bodies of work and settles into its own stratosphere of overcooked Dixie tales of familial ruination and sweaty sexuality. Except instead of Brando calling out for Stella, you’ve got Franco fucking Vaccaro. And don’t forget that Sonny’s mama taught him everything he knows. Interpret that as you will. Carlen credits his grandmother in real life for doing him the same favor when he was nine, if that makes you feel any queasier.
Note: James Franco’s Sonny character is just impossible, but Franco makes him borderline believable. If this generation does have a Brando, it’s Franco. Instead of the Streetcar Stanley’s brawling brute, Sonny is a lithe, explosive swizzle-stick of sex who specializes in crazed nude outbursts and shirtless self-appraisal before the mirror. He’s showing off to himself and to us, more explicitly than Brando ever did. Sonny has to literally sell himself in the movie; Stanley Kowalski just has to hold onto Stella. Both actors are selling to the camera, and it’s difficult to tell how hard they are trying because it seems effortless. Franco is more a boyish Brando than a berserk Nicolas Cage in Sonny, but the director and actor make sure you get enough of both.
Come to think of it, Brando should have been in Sonny, maybe as Sonny’s rough trade trick at the end of the film. Franco/Brando/Cage: it would have been film history.
Now, run straight to Sonny. Watch it with a friend and then discuss how Nicolas Cage needs to return to the director’s chair, preferably with some half-finished, forgotten work of John Carlen. If someone is going to run wild with it, why not Nicolas Cage and James Franco.
They make a better pair than Woody Allen and whoever is doing an impression of him in whatever shit he’s cranking out now – and no, I don’t care if he’s in love with Europe now.
Nicolas Cage certainly doesn’t need Europe; he only had to go to New Orleans for his opus. And then he went BACK to a post-Katrina New Orleans for his collaboration with another superstar director (and secretly talented actor) Werner Herzog in the masterful Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. That’s even better than Sonny!
And that’s a recommendation from Raúl that you won’t find every day.