Grim, wicked tale of male prostitution
HUSTLER WHITE James Franco is “Sonny”. Nicolas Cage is currently making headlines for a) divorcing Lisa Marie Presley and b) his excellent work in Adaptation, Spike Jonze’s follow-up to Being John Malkovich. It must be his year, because he’s ending it by making his directorial debut with Sonny, without question one of the darkest, most depressing films of the year. It is also completely riveting. This story of a New Orleans male prostitute is at times a bit too violent and emotionally lugubrious for its own good. Nonetheless, it is truly hard to resist the intense, sex-filled plot and the superb performances of the cast.
James Franco plays Sonny, a 26-year-old stud who has just been discharged from the Army. It’s the early 1980’s and Sonny has returned to his Bourbon Street home in New Orleans, where his faded Southern belle mother Jewel (Brenda Blethyn) and her longtime companion Henry (Harry Dean Stanton) happily greet him. Jewel is a madam, and before Sonny joined the military, he was one of Jewel’s most lucrative “employees,” able to charm both New Orleans society matrons and gay men into spending up to $300 for a roll in the hay. (If Blanche DuBois had not been taken away to the sanitarium, she may have ended up like Jewel: A leopard-print-clad, chain-smoking New Orleans matron who has lost her looks and any sense of self-respect or dignity.) When Sonny is back at home, and Jewel is unable to make enough money, because she only has one person working for her, Carol (Mena Suvari). Jewel urges Sonny to return to a life of prostitution. He plans to go “straight,” and anyway, he was supposed to be just stopping in New Orleans for a few days before starting his new life. Like Sonny, Carol yearns to get out of “the life” and earn a legitimate living, but it seems the “straight” world just doesn’t want their kind. Every time Sonny tries to go “straight,” he gets knocked down. His former life as a hustler keeps calling him back as he runs into old clients around town. When the job in Texas falls through, so does Sonny’s friendship with his Army buddy (and a potential girlfriend, who turns out to be a codeine addict). He is forced to return to a life of prostitution, heavy drinking and violence. On the surface, Sonny is a handsome, low-key guy, but he’s also prone to violent outbursts of rage and anger, mostly directed at his customers. A New Orleans grande dame hires Sonny to dress up as a cop and “arrest” her, and then demands that he penetrate her with his policeman’s nightstick. When she only pays him $200 instead of the $300 she promised, he goes into a rage and tears her house apart. Toward the end, Sonny gets drunk and visits an old pimp friend at a male brothel. Nicholas Cage makes a cameo as the pimp who finds him a john. When the trick asks to be “punished in any way you see fit,” Sonny brutally beats the man up. Scenes like this are so violent and gory, they’re uncomfortable to watch. Sonny is basically a Southern gothic version of the film that made Nicolas Cage a star, Leaving Las Vegas. Tennessee Williams could have easily written the screenplay. It’s trashy and melodramatic, but accurately depicts the bohemian spirit of the Big Easy. Despite the film’s numerous bleak themes, we actually feel sympathy for these degenerate characters and their sordid lives, and that’s mostly due to the great ensemble cast. British actress Brenda Blethyn’s Louisiana drawl seems strained at times, yet she adds charm to her pathetic character. Harry Dean Stanton, as always, is outstanding. Sonny would be nothing without James Franco’s consummate portrayal of the title character. He somehow makes the emotionally fragile and volatile Sonny seem likable.