A lot of actors make their directorial debut at some point, some return to it occasionally while for others it becomes a whole side career, if not their principle one. A few actors just try it out once and leave it at that, and Nicolas Cage is among them. Yes. Cage has actually directed a film, something I was practically unaware of until quite recently.
Sonny is a low-profile, low-key, low-budget film with a bit of a ‘Sundance’ feel to it. It premiered in 2002 – the same year Cage was wowing audiences in Adaptation – made very little money and was soon forgotten. Did it deserve such a fate? Well…possibly, but it’s bound to be rediscovered every now and then, not only because of Cage’s involvement, but it’s one of the first leading roles for James Franco. Sonny outwardly looks like it could have been a small ‘personal project’ for Cage, but while he directs and produces, he had no hand in writing it. Goodness knows what about the truly unremarkable story and poorly written script interested him.
Franco plays the titular Sonny, a 26 year-old man who’s just returned home to his mother in New Orleans in 1981 after some time in the army. This apparently ‘normal’ setup soon reveals itself to be not quite so as in the course of their conversation we learn that Sonny’s mother (a raucously over-the-top Brenda Blethyn) is an aging prostitute running a small brothel, who’s raised her son to be a gigolo, a line of work he practised prior to the military. I guess it’s lucky for her that her son grew up to look like James Franco.
He wants out of the family business though, unfortunately for him, his mother is having financial problems and believes he could be a valuable asset. He tries to get other jobs but is sabotaged by his own personality; he responds to difficult situations by angrily and violently destroying objects surrounding him. Franco gets to show some range (and some skin) but the character is hard to feel any sympathy toward, something the script seems to be looking for, likewise, when Sonny later throws in a timid cross-prostitute romance involving Mena Suvari as another of Sonny’s mother’s employees.
Cage presents the proceedings in an unassuming, everyday style (if I were being harsh I might say nineties TV-movie). It neither exploits nor condemns the character’s actions (though one scene involving client of Sonny’s who’s into police uniforms might get an unintentional laugh). There’s little visual flair bar a brief unimportant driving montage and no noteworthy style to Cage’s direction.
He does make a cameo appearance in the final act of the film, playing a flamboyant coke-snorting pimp named ‘Acid Yellow’, decked out in a fake nose, huge glasses, wig and horrible yellow suit. He looks completely ludicrous, but the film’s become so dreary by this late point that he at least provides some amusement, intentional or otherwise.
It’s unlikely any director could have made a good film out of Sonny’s script, but Cage unfortunately doesn’t bring any life to it, and it’s hardly surprising he hasn’t ventured behind the camera again since.