The subject of Nicolas Cage's first directorial effort is a young male hustler, Sonny (James Franco), fresh out of the army, who returns to his mother's brothel on Bourbon Street, hoping to put "the life" behind him. Mom is a middle-aged madam named Jewel (Brenda Blethyn--were there no American actresses available for this quintessentially American role?), who only has one girl in her stable, the hard-working Carol (Mena Suvari). Jewel is anxious for Sonny to return to his old profession; when he was 12, she trained him to be a top-notch hooker. Time is passing and Jewel has no Social Security, but she figures Sonny and Carol working in tandem and separately would provide quite a retirement cushion. Maternity may not be Jewel's strong point. Quietly encouraging Sonny's efforts to join the straight world is Henry (Harry Dean Stanton), Jewel's boyfriend, who turns out to have a secret that will one day cause Sonny to go on a bender of maniacal proportions.

In the meantime, Sonny discovers that not only has his job in a buddy's bookstore in Texas fallen through, but also that the sweet young lady he dates there is addicted to codeine. His illusions about straight people are so--pardon the expression--shattered that he breaks bottles in the girl's bathroom and tosses her onto the broken glass. In fact, at several points in the film, whenever upset, Sonny throws furnishings around, sweeps objects off tables, and breaks whatever comes to hand. It is not an endearing quality.

John Carlen's script is full of unhappy, two-dimensional characters who are anything but compelling. Mostly, we hope that one day they find a good therapist or social worker, but it is difficult to care whether they do or not. Cage manages to mangle what little impact Sonny might have had by letting his cast go over the edge at every opportunity, in addition to self-consciously calling attention to his direction with a few trick shots. The actors are indulged, not directed. As for Blethyn, she tries awfully hard to get the New Orleans accent down pat, but we can see the machinery turning in every one of her scenes.

Alas, no one suffers more from the lack of guidance than Cage himself, playing the role of a male madam dressed in canary yellow and wearing a wig that gives Don King major competition. Cage is ludicrously silly in a sinister role. It's a cameo destined to persuade most audiences that if a man cannot direct himself, he ought to think twice about directing others.

--Bruce Feld