Cage long ago shed his famous uncle's name in an effort to blaze his own way--a task at which he succeeded admirably as a performer. But in stepping behind the camera he is sure to remind everyone of that lineage, especially when the result is so far askew from anything one would expect from America's first family of cinema.
The very talented James Franco, who won an Emmy for his portrayal of James Dean, again seems to be inhabiting the ghost of the late legend as the strapping Sonny, recently discharged from army service and headed back home to New Orleans where his mama, Jewel (Brenda Blethyn), awaits. As all-American as this scenario sounds, it's not. Jewel is a Bourbon Street Madame who, prior to Sonny's military service, proudly pimped her son to an entire cadre of sex-starved upper-class Louisiana housewives.
The joy of their reunion is short-lived--Jewel wants to pick up where they left off, with Sonny once again peddling his wares for mama. Sonny, meanwhile, wants to start a new life in the "straight" world, an ambition shared by Jewel's newest star, Carol (Mena Suvari). But Sonny's first effort at integrating with normal society proves so horribly disastrous that he runs straight back to Jewel and the life he had sworn off. There's some salvation in the relationship he builds with Carol, as well as the warm encouragement he gets from Jewel's longtime companion Henry (Harry Dean Stanton), but Jewel is too manipulative and determined to let anyone escape her grasp, and her obsessive streak threatens to push her own son to the brink of self-destruction.
Scripted by veteran television writer John Carlen, "Sonny" touches on so many pertinent and serious points that it's hard to entirely dismiss it. One imagines that this is the kind of story Tennessee Williams might have written if given another decade of life. In execution, though, the movie feels more like Tennessee Williams as seen through the eyes of Ken Russell--overwrought and indulgent to the point of amateurism, with expressions of emotion so over-modulated as to verge on camp. Blethyn's shrill shrew is the film's most aggravating miscalculation--a minor variation on her "Secrets & Lies" and "Little Voice" characters distinguished only by the substitution of a Southern accent for a British one.
Not that the actors ever really had a chance--Carlen's script simply won't allow it, holding the characters hostage to the necessity of their own stupidity so as to obtain the ending that has been designed for them. Audiences accustomed to empathetic attachment will have little use for such cogs--it's hard to feel sorry for someone born into bad circumstances if they bungle every opportunity to extricate themselves. Fortunately, there's enough intrinsic value in the underlying story and message that even the most fateful mistakes can't entirely unravel the picture. After nearly two hours, though hobbled, broken-down and just plain ugly, "Sonny" still manages to limp across the finish line with a modicum of respect. Starring James Franco, Mena Suvari, Brenda Blethyn and Harry Dean Stanton. Directed by Nicolas Cage. Written by John Carlen. Produced by Nicolas Cage, Norm Golightly and Paul Brooks. A Goldwyn release. Drama. Rated R for strong sexuality, language, some drug use and violence. Running time: 110 min.