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Stunning, smart, and twisted comedy
It's hard to imagine a time before film noir. Though cinema had a good three or four decades before noir's visual style and narrative devices became the stuff of legend, almost a shorthand for cinema itself, even the black-and-white visuals of German Expressionism didn't prepare audiences for the ways in which noir would infect everything from television to videogames. Of course, it wasn't always that way—noir was a fashion like any other and lay dormant after reaching one of its high points with Touch of Evil and wasn't resurrected until the neo-noir of the '70s (like Chinatown). By then, it seemed that noir wasn't so much a genre as a sensibility that could be played with. More and more throwback noirs emerged, and then comedy noirs that poked fun at the conventions. Then came neo-neo-noir and sci-fi noir (Dark City) and indie noir (Brick). All that lineage stands behind the indie comedy Searching for Sonny. While an admirable sense of adventure prevails, the film threatens to collapse under the weight of its references.
Elliot Knight (Jason Dohring, Veronica Mars) is a loser living in New York City who receives a mysterious postcard inviting him to his ten-year-high school reunion. There he's reunited with two of his friends from that era. The only problem is that they're missing the final member of their original quartet, Sonny Bosco (Masi Oka, Hawaii Five-O). He's disappeared, and when the trio investigates, they uncover a mystery, a mystery that bears a striking resemblance to a play they performed in high school that Sonny wrote.
Searching for Sonny is one of the more agreeable films I've ever seen. It has its own aesthetic that's calculated to be a bit quirky, a bit interesting, but ultimately inoffensive. It plays on tropes viewers are already very familiar with, and it does so with competence and obvious enjoyment from those involved.
At best, this means that Searching for Sonny is a well-made thriller of modest ambitions that takes its comedy from its deadpan narration and a series of hapless situations that become increasingly ridiculous that culminate in a conclusion many will see coming. At worst, it means the film is a derivative take on the noir formula. The film can feel at time like the creators watch Rian Johnson's films and tried to combine them. There's a nod to the noir from Brick, but the madcap mystery stylings of The Brothers Bloom. That's not a bad thing per se, but it does keep the film from feeling particularly fresh despite its positive attributes.
There are positive attributes. All the actors are game, and they make even the more preposterous aspects of the plot fun, if not entirely believable. I like anything where Jason Dohring gets to play a slacker, and he's in fine form here. Despite being an indie production, the filmmakers scored Michael Hogan (Battlestar Galactica) as the principal of the high school the characters attended. The highlight for me, though was Clarke Peters (Lester Freemon from The Wire) as the narrator. His deadpan delivery knits the film together. The film is also knit together by solid editing and a strong sense of visuals. Flashbacks and montages are used to good effect in revealing information and making connections between characters.
The film also benefits from an excellent DVD release. The standard def 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is excellent. Colors are bright and well-saturated, and the all-important black levels are consistent and deep. I didn't notice any serious noise or digital problems, either. It's still an indie production without big-budget sheen, but for what it is, it looks good. The Dolby 5.1 Surround track is very similar. Dialogue and music are well-balanced, and the surrounds get some use during tenser moments.
Extras kick off with a commentary featuring writer/director Andrew Disney and DP Jeff Waldron. The pair are pretty chatty, and spend much of the time talking about how various technical problems were solved in the low budget situation. Next there are five featurettes that cover various aspects of the production, including how the filmmakers landed Michael Hogan (hint, it was a funny video) and two different gag reels. The film's trailer and an introduction from the cast are also included.
As a directorial debut for Andrew Disney, Searching for Sonny shows serious potential. It's an indie thriller/comedy that wears its heart on its sleeve, aiming high for the budget it used. Though some might find the noir pastiche derivative, it's worth a rental for fans of the actors, especially Dohring and Hogan.
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