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Wednesday, April 28, 2004
Selling oneself short in the South
There was a time when one could relish seeing Nicholas Cage's name in a film's credits, a fertile period that encompassed 1991's "Wild at Heart," his notorious cockroach-eating villain in "Kiss of Death" ('95), and his Oscar-winning role as a suicidal alcoholic in "Leaving Las Vegas" ('96). But aside from last year's rare return to form in "Adaptation," Cage has largely coasted, chewing up the scenery in what verges on self-parody in films like "Snake Eyes," "Wind Talkers," "Gone in 60 Seconds" and "Con Air."
With his directorial debut, "Sonny," it's tempting to think that Cage has returned to his roots, that he's bought his freedom to make edgy, performance-driven films with his salaries from the blockbusters. Well, let's just say he has and he hasn't: "Sonny" would never be mistaken for a Hollywood product, and Cage has peopled it with actors who exude an authentic presence -- Harry Dean Stanton, Brenda Blethyn, Seymour Cassel and Mena Suvari. But the "roots" Cage seems to have returned to are those of one of his most dismal flops, "Zandalee" ('91), an "erotic thriller" that's rarely listed in the actor's filmography.
Like "Zandalee," "Sonny" is set against a louche New Orleans backdrop, with plenty of room for humid sexual dalliances and dodgy Southern accents, a combination that seems irresistible to Cage. And, like "Zandalee," it's a film undone by its screenplay, one which rings about as true as a Bush Cabinet official testifying under oath. "Sonny" takes us down New Orleans' seedy Bourbon St., past its "bottomless, topless" bars, where a young man just out of the army is returning home.
Sonny (James Franco, "Spiderman") is decidedly ambivalent about coming home, and when his mom answers the door, we see why: Mom (Blethyn) is a shrieking harpy in a leopard-print miniskirt with big hair, too much makeup, and a clingy, domineering determination to make Sonny do her bidding. A hooker past her prime, she's now making ends meet by renting out her young protege, Carol (Mena Suvari, "American Beauty"), and anticipates having Sonny work as her "partner." Sonny, however, has different ideas: "I'm 26 years old, Momma, I don't wanna screw all night anymore," he complains, to which Mom roars: "Yew ungrateful sunuvabitch!"
The film is riddled with dialogue like this, which teeters on the ridiculous. This is New Orleans 1981, as the film clearly tells us up front, but from the way people act, you'd never guess it. To be sure, there are remote tribal regions of Nepal or Afghanistan, where there's no escaping the crushing rigidity of the caste system, where if you're born a prostitute, you'll die a prostitute. But this is America, where a new life is only a tankful of gas away.
Thus it's with some mystification we watch Sonny endlessly moping about feeling trapped, his utter inability to get away and start a new life. His one big move is to visit an army buddy in Texas, where he hopes to get a job at a bookstore. That falls through, but he does go out on a double-date, a real All-American date that takes in a movie, popcorn, holding hands and ice-cream. He ends up in his date's bed, where she makes an unfortunate postcoital remark: "Ohmigod, that was amazing! You should do that for a living."
Bad-a-boom. Sonny, not too quick on the draw, admits, "I used to be a ho'," then can't quite figure out why his girl freaks out. Rule No. 1 of putting the past behind you: Let it go!
Sonny just can't, so it's back to Bourbon St., and more of the samo-samo, pimping and whoring. Carol takes a shine to Sonny, but he's just about ready to explode from the frustration of servicing kinky housewives who always try to shortchange him. This allows Franco a chance to carry on the hoary tradition of Italo-American acting, pioneered by De Niro and Pacino and certainly furthered by Cage, in which the actor expresses his inner turmoil in the most outre way possible -- flipping out, screaming and yelling, and smashing every breakable item within reach. Look out! There goes the crockery!
Overacting is the norm here with several offenders, including Cage himself as some sort of loony-toon drag-queen pimp called "Acid Yellow." But Blethyn wins hands down, a white-trash nightmare who makes Diane Ladd in "Wild at Heart" seem positively restrained in comparison, veering from brassy bitching to whiny manipulative pleading. Stanton, as Blethyn's shoplifting boyfriend, flickers around in the background, occasionally emerging to steal a scene or two with his quiet, dry wit. But even Suvari can't save this film: She gets the blase, robotic nature of whoring down right, but she's stuck with some truly bad hair and worse dialogue. (In bed with Sonny: "Now, I know why yo' momma calls yew a natural-born ho'.")
"We can't change what we are" is the defeatist philosophy Sonny comes to accept by the film's end. Judging from Cage's skills as a director, he'd better take heed and not give up the day job.