For the devoted moviegoer, there’s something reassuring about touching bottom, about knowing that you have endured the worst that movies can offer. Such a cathartic experience will soon be available: Sonny, the directorial debut of Nicolas Cage. The story (and I use that word advisedly) follows the title character (James Franco), a New Orleans gigolo, “the best there ever was,” according to his momma (Brenda Blethyn), who’s also his pimp. Their companions include a new prostitute, Carol (Mena Suvari), and an older man, Henry (Harry Dean Stanton), who hangs around the house getting loaded and playing gin. Sonny just wants to work in a bookstore, but Momma’s big dream is to have Carol and Sonny work together, like a pairs figure-skating team.
It’s hard to say when the movie first runs off the rails. Perhaps when Momma screeches the world “girl” like “goyl.” Or when Carol decides to give a client free sex so that she can get Sonny a new car: a black Pontiac Trans Am complete with a firebird decal. (The movie takes place in the ‘80s, though it’s impossible to tell except for the inclusion of a Rush song.) Later, there’s the moment when Carol sees a dog with newly born puppies and starts to cry, because she, too, wants to be a mother. But all hope is lost when Harry Dean Stanton finally wins a game of cards and declares: “This is Henry’s day.” He then goes outside, gets into his car, and is promptly flattened by a speeding tractor trailer. In the parking lot.
The unenviable task of carrying the movie falls to James Franco, the actor who won praise for playing James Dean on television and who threatened to upstage Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man. The camera caresses his melancholy brow in most every scene, but oh, the lines he has to say: “We can’t just pretend we’re like other people,” or “Whaddya mean by happy?” And, since none of the wealthy suburban women he services ever pays the agreed-upon fee, the role also calls for a lot of tearing down of curtains and breaking of televisions, in a subtle, actorly way.
This movie appears to be an honest failure, which makes it all the more strange.
But Nicolas Cage isn’t the first actor to lead a group of talented friends astray, and this movie won’t create a ruffle in what is already an erratic career. In fact, if he’s lucky, Sonny will be written off—perhaps as a cinematic companion piece to his three-month marriage to Lisa Marie Presley.