His life was the morning after, until he decided to change the night before.
Sonny Phillips (James Franco, Spider-Man) spent his youth man-whoring, if I may borrow a phrase from that masterpiece Deuce Bigalow. You see, his mother Jewel (Brenda Blethyn, Little Voice) is a small-time madame who taught him everything he knows. The film opens in 1981 as Sonny returns to his home in New Orleans after a stint in the army. He's determined to leave the gigolo life behind him and enter the world of the "squares," but Jewel's career is in rapid decline—she has only one prostitute on the payroll, a hooker with a heart of gold (as if there's any other kind) named Carol (Mena Suvari, American Beauty)—so she manipulates her boy to return to the family business. At 26, Sonny's getting long in the tooth for the gigolo business, though, and can't help but recognize how Jewel's life with her longtime beau, a thief named Henry Wade (Harry Dean Stanton, Alien), is headed for a dreary dead-end. Carol's fallen in love with Sonny, and wants to run away with him, join the world of the squares, have babies, and live happily ever after, but does he have what it takes to break Jewel's hold over him?
Sonny is Nicolas Cage's abysmal directorial debut. Chief among its problems is the script, the first written by John Carlen, who'd go on to write television movies with titles like Easy Prey (1986) and Sworn to Justice (1993). That Carlen wrote the script in 1977 and it languished unproduced for 25 years says volumes. Carlen was a gigolo himself during his youth, and the script is loosely based on people he knew, though it's not autobiographical. Perhaps his closeness to the subject matter explains some of the piece's obvious gaffes. In his commentary on the disc, he repeatedly insists prostitution has nothing to do with sex, is no different than selling shoes, and that he purposely avoided any sort of moralizing in his writing. That's all well and good, but what are we to make, then, of the fact each character's life is falling apart? Near the end of the film, Carlen observes how much pain there is in the characters' lives, then insists prostitution isn't the cause of the pain, but offers no explanation of what is. If, as he claims, prostitution is unrelated to the characters' shattered relationships, then why all the ballyhoo over whether or not Sonny remains in the business? Carlen has crafted a clichéd morality play but sounds desperate on the talk track to convince himself he hasn't. The result is a confused mess that hammers its emotional moments too hard in order to assert a coherence that isn't there.
Cage and Carlen are up to the task of showing the mundane details of a gigolo's life, but delivering the big moments is beyond their grasp, so they cheat: personal epiphanies are delivered by way of overwrought soliloquies riddled with cliché. Cage indulges his actors far too much (the biggest danger, I'm guessing, when an actor moves into the director's chair). Franco and Suvari don't stray too far into self-indulgence, but Blethyn's turn is downright shameful. An accomplished stage actress and respected contributor to films, Blethyn plays Jewel Phillips like a Tennessee Williams Southern belle on mescaline. The performance is only slightly less over-the-top than Carol Burnett's take on Scarlet O'Hara on her old variety show. I kid you not. The only absolutely engaging performance is Harry Dean Stanton's. No surprise there. During his long career, he's proven himself more than capable of consistently beautiful work regardless of the quality of the project. His Henry Wade is appropriately weary, careworn, but somehow noble. Stanton keeps the character grounded in reality, plays his scenes with an eye for fine detail, and pays close attention to his fellow actors. Too bad the movie isn't worthy of him.
Sonny may be lousy, but it sure looks good on DVD. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is crisp, clean, and sports warm and perfectly-rendered colors. The dialogue-heavy film makes little use of the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround treatment its been given, but the track is vibrant and crystal clear.
Extras include two commentary tracks, one by Cage and producer Norm Golightly, the other by Carlen. Cage's and Golightly's track is easy-going, anecdotal, and mildly informative. Carlen's is much more informative and entertaining as he discusses the script's evolution, his real-life experiences, scenes and dialogue that were excised or changed, and elements of the story he wishes he'd handled differently. Carlen's affinity for his script shines through in the commentary, and his candidness is hard not to appreciate. I may not have liked the film, but at least its writer was sincere. In the end, though, I can't recommend it.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Nicolas Cage and Producer Norm Golightly
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