I first became aware of this little known Nicolas Cage title while reading Nathan Rabin’s wonderful column published on the AV Club website titled My Year of Flops. At first, I wondered how I could have no knowledge about a film that stars not only Cage but also Joe Pantoliano, Judge Reinhold, Aaron “The touch, the feel of cotton” Neville, Steve Buscemi, and—one of my personal favorite actresses of all time—Marisa Tomei. After finishing his article I went and did some extra research (I’m a dork like that) and realized that there was a solid reason why I had never heard of it. Apparently, the studio found director Sam Pilsbury’s efforts so bad, they sent it straight to video in the States. In fact, it was only released in 5 countries. Then there was the dispute over the rating; originally, the MPAA had given the film the dreaded label of NC-17, makingZandalee one of the first films to get hit with the newly created designation. Being rather displeased with the ruling, the studio had the rating surrendered before the scheduled release of the film, resulting in both R rated and unrated versions hitting the home video market. I was only 11 years old when this was released, and by the time I was beginning to get into film, this effort had already been lost in the ether of public consciousness. Plus, I was more focused on watching Cage going through the machinations it takes to become a world-class action star in fair such as Face/Off orCon Air.
Zandalee is indebted to the novel and play titled Thérèse Raquinby Émile Zola, a French writer and important contributor to the development of theatrical naturalism (if you have already seen Zandalee the irony contained in the last sentence should have hit you like a 16 wheeler that lost breaking capabilities). The film revolves around Zandalee, a woman whose dead-end marriage with her husband Thierry (Judge Reinhold), a poet turned executive—a man once talented now crushed under the weight of selling out; he’s the ultimate cuckold, he can’t even muster an erection anymore—has reached the breaking point. Luckily for her, the mysterious Johnny (Cage) shows up at their door. He’s a life long friend of Thierry, a passionate and somewhat destructive artist, who is immediately attracted to Zandalee, an urge that is reciprocated in turn. Perhaps spurred on by the humid heat of the New Orleans’ night, the two begin a torrid, passionate affair, one that is also destructive in nature. Before too long, the tryst intensifies and Thierry starts to suspect his wife and friend are in the midst of an affair. Johnny, smitten as is he, wants Zandalee to leave her husband but she remains unconvinced, feelings for the emotional adrift Thierry continue to bubble up, leading to the couple deciding to take a vacation in what they consider to be their own personal spot on the Bayou. Johnny, not taking the hint and remaining emotionally undeterred, tracks them down, setting up a melodramatic ending fitting of this soapy, Zalaman King style feature.
To help him craft another signature Cage performance, the actor adopts one of the most off-kilter New Orleans accents of all time—a fact made crazier since Cage has a home in New Orleans and spends a fair amount of time in the city; he should have a bead on what a normal accent sounds like, yet he chooses to ignore the conventional route creating a dialect blended with an Elvis impression that appears to be unique to the time and space of this fictional character. The actor doesn’t stop there though; he also makes the curious choice of having Johnny don the most ridiculous facial hair this side of a Grateful Dead cover band, complete with a goatee, mustache, and soul patch. Judge Reinhold tries his best to compete with Cage, resulting in a mustache-off of epic proportions (he loses). When you add these two factors to the normal Cage performance traits of overacting and going nuts in what one could only perceive to be truly random intervals in his performance, you have another acting effort worthy of the feverish fandom the actor inspires in his audience.
The only major factor that prevents this cinematic curiosity from reaching the pinnacle of the Nicolas Cage guilty pleasure list is the black hole of acting that Erika Anderson brings to the role of Zandalee. A former radio personality at a jazz station in Tulsa, Anderson brings zero personality or feeling to the role, which is a major problem considering her character is required to ooze sex, causing the men in her life to be driven mental when in her presence. Anderson’s stock expression is blankness; maybe she’s trying to reflect confusion to the audience. Maybe hunger. Maybe she’s gassy. At any rate, the audience is saddled with one-third of a laughable love triangle, one that remains inert for the film’s runtime and involves sex scenes that lack anything resembling sexiness, resulting in chemistry never being established between the leads.
However, in the grand scheme of things, this remains a minor drawback. After all, this issue often results in the unintentional hilarity reaching new heights with each passing minute of the film. With Cage at his zaniest and Judge Reinhold and his tone-deaf accent initially trying to compete but eventually making the wise decision to hold on for dear life, a terminal case of wooden acting by the lead actress, and a supporting cast inhabited with character actors that would become prominent cinema fixtures as the decade progressed, Zandalee has an abundance of gifts for an audience that loves odd, forgotten cinema. For a Cage enthusiast such as myself, it hit the sweet spot, and if you are of a similar mindset, the same results are virtually guaranteed.