It would be hard to imagine a more eccentric career—or persona—than that of Nicolas Cage, the wildcard veteran star who took home an Oscar in 1996 for Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas but is today commonly regarded as the quintessential actor-for-hire, dressing up many a colorful B-movie with his signature, often theatrical eccentricity. A performer unto himself with outsized energy and knowing, self-referential “nouveau shamanic” vocal and physical idiosyncrasies, Cage is, bar none, perhaps the most unique A-list actor turned B-movie player the American movie industry has ever known.
But it would be unfair to simply apply this narrow lens to the iconic career movie star who found stardom in such 80s classics as Valley Girl, Moonstruck, Peggy Sue Got Married (for uncle Francis Ford Coppola), Raising Arizona, Birdy and Racing with the Moon—all bona fide terrific movies and performances.
In the 90s Cage headlined such memorable outings as the pulpy noir Red Rock West, arms dealer drama Lord of War, snuff thriller 8mm, Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead, the actioner Con Air, Alcatraz opus The Rock, John Woo extravaganza Face/Off and the charming It Could Happen to You. How’s that for versatility?
These pictures would be enviable on any resume, but it was the 1989 cult comedy Vampire’s Kiss that saw the star first full-on embrace what would become known as his beloved Cage performance art (though he dropped hints in Peggy Sue), notably in scene of spastic alphabet recitation that became the stuff of YouTube comedy legend.
Cage has been transparent in the press about his financial dilemmas of the past decade or so, and his need to double-down on work to extricate himself from debt, thus lending his talents to scores of lesser-than genre (and sometimes direct-to-video) pictures that were often colorful and sometimes much better, as in the case of 2018’s gonzo supernatural revenge thriller Mandy, which features an all-time great Cage freak out scene that, for my money, belongs on his career highlights reel beside Leaving Las Vegas (a key moment from which is reproduced in this new picture). And in last year’s indie Pig, Cage’s indelible performance as a former Portland chef living in the off-the-grid wild who must return to civilization, was amongst the year’s finest.
The meta-ness of Nicolas Cage in his new picture, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, is on another level altogether. Co-written and directed by Tom Gormican, this conceptually audacious movie somehow manages to be a salient commentary on the fleeing nature of celebrity in a fickle Hollywood, a surprisingly sweet buddy movie and, rudimentarily, an action comedy of sorts, even while slinging its arrows at such bombastic tropes. Not only does its star play a close approximation of himself as an on-the-ropes former A-lister who squandered a hot career, he also good naturedly sends up his unorthodox resume. The results are frequently thrilling.
At times evoking Cage’s terrific Spike Jonze excursion Adaptation in self-referential, reality bending approach, one might also recall Jonze doing similar with John Malkovich, who also played himself for the director in Being John Malkovich, though where that picture was often form-defying, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is less art-house and more entertainment; less puzzle and more poignant.
Picture opens with “Nick” Cage (not to be confused with Nic Cage) in a career freefall cornering director David Gordon Green (who directed Cage to his terrific 2013 Joe performance) at Hollywood’s famed Chateau Marmont (where else?) for a shot at hot new role destined to return him to the A-list. $600,000 in debt to the hotel where he’s been residing since his separation from wife Olivia (Sharon Hogan) and estranged daughter Addy (Lily Sheen), he can’t catch a break—that is, until his agent (Neil Patrick Harris) suggest a $1 million payday to attend a wealthy tycoon’s birthday bash off the coast of Spain (doubled here by the Croatian shores).
Enter Mallorcan magnate Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal), a Cage superfan who not only harbors a hidden, treasure trove memorabilia museum to his idol (including a life-size Face/Off replica replete with golden pistols) but also not-so-secretly wants Cage to star in his unproduced screenplay, a love letter to the actor whose Guarding Tess holds a special place in his number one fan’s heart. Initially put-off by the attention, Cage reluctantly buddies up to his adoring sycophant and an unexpected friendship ensues, the pair crafting their own screenplay—an anti-Hollywood “character centered” piece that, wouldn’t you know it, eventually sells itself out.
Meanwhile, a couple of CIA agents (Tiffany Hadish and Ike Barinholtz) believing Javi the head of a crime syndicate responsible for a political kidnapping corral Cage into spying for them (lampooning the star’s action thrillers), a subplot lampooning the star’s action pictures and one wisely taking a backseat to the the industry satire and budding friendship.
And then there’s Cage’s alter-ego, a much younger and even more mercurial (and broadly CGI) version of himself named “Nicky,” a running gag internal adviser dispensing tough-love career counsel–these Cage on Cage scenes are amongst the film’s wittiest, including an uproarious, ego-boosting clinch.
That the film works as well as it does in the second act (after establishing the Cage meta-conceit in its first) is because the engaging chemistry and affability—you can tell they like each other—between Cage and Pascal is all onscreen. Pascal, the Chilean-born star of Disney’s The Mandalorian and Wonder Woman 1984, matches his much bigger co-star scene for scene; he walks a fine line between knowing parody and real reverence, and his sweetness and wide-eyed incredulity that his object of great affection has walked into his life, realizing his wildest fraternal and artistic dreams, is both endearing and sincere in the utmost.
All of this is tremendous fun. While the picture’s final third attempts a send-up of Cage’s action outings while getting a piece of the action itself, it never loses sight of the Cageyness of it all as a warm and knowing tribute to an American original, and the actor has a field day lampooning his more is always more image, leaning into self-deprecation and self-aggrandizement with equal measure.
The film isn’t perfect, underutilizing Haddish and Barinholtz while slipping slightly in its final moments during a too muted reunion scene that short-shrifts Pascal and feels slightly incomplete.
No matter. It’s Cage’s world and we are just living in it—and that proves a hell of a good time.
3 1/2 stars.