In The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, Nicolas Cage plays Nicolas Cage, prolific actor, Hollywood star, and icon of the internet. If that concept alone puts you in stitches, you may be the right audience for this meta trifle of a comedy.
It’s the kind of movie that treats the mere mention of other movies (like Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Guarding Tess) as a punch line, and that regards characters repeatedly calling Nicolas Cage “Nic Cage” to his face as the height of hilarity. At one point, the star stumbles upon a shrine to his own output, a long wall of lovingly showcased props and merchandise with his likeness on them, and winds up gawking at an unconvincing life-size replica of himself, brandishing the golden pistols from Face/Off. It’s the whole film in a nutshell: A shrine to the cult of Cage, a memorabilia room of a movie.
A long time coming
Cage has been working toward a role like this for a while. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent feels like the logical endpoint to one fork in his twisting career path, the one that’s been bending into an ouroboros of cult fame, allowing him to capitalize on how fans and detractors alike caricature his wild-man talents. Recent movies like Willy’s Wonderland and Prisoners of the Ghostland put those talents to little use, instead asking only that he show up, stand around, and be Nicolas Cage — they essentially turn him into an accessory. Here, the sales pitch is more direct: You pay for Nic Cage and Nic Cage is exactly what you get, without the distraction of a fictional character.
Director and co-writer Tom Gormican (That Awkward Moment) has essentially built Cage his very own JCVD, the 2008 Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle that cast the Muscles from Brussels as a washed-up version of himself. As in that sardonic action-comedy, an actor with a lot of tough guys on his CV is forced to channel a history of fake violence into the genuine kind when he’s thrust into danger … but not before suffering some professional indignities and grappling with his own failings as a divorced father. (While the real Cage has two kids and is on his fifth marriage, that’s been fictionalized here into a simpler sitcom arrangement, with Catastrophe‘s Sharon Horgan as his supportive but no-nonsense ex-wife and Lily Mo Sheen as his exasperated teenage daughter.)
Crestfallen about a part he didn’t land, and eager to pay off some enormous debts (a wink at the star’s heavily publicized tax problems), Cage agrees to attend an eccentric billionaire’s weekend birthday party on a secluded Spanish island for a cool $1 million. His host turns out to be an effusive superfan played, with a sycophantic twinkle, by Pedro Pascal. There’s comic potential in an actor of Cage’s stature and popularity forced to humor a die-hard fan with expectations of how his idol ought to behave off-screen. But Unbearable Weight mostly sees an opportunity for kinship between the two, fulfilling a Comic-Con fantasy of meeting your famous Hollywood hero and discovering he’s actually just a very generous, thoughtful, down-to-earth dude interested in reading your screenplay.
Gormican flirts vaguely with the house-of-mirrors laughs of another Cage project, Adaptation, when the two instant besties start brainstorming a project, one that takes the mutating shape of their own circumstances and creative partnership. (“This is an intelligent film for grown-ups,” they keep repeating, as the Donald Kaufman-worthy hijinks erupting around them beg deliberately to differ.) But the film is closer in spirit to one of Seth Rogen’s lightly satirical, shoot-’em-up bromances, complete with a cameo by Pineapple Express director David Gordon Green — who secured from Cage one of his finest late-period performances in Joe — and a plot that superficially recalls The Interview. As it turns out, the CIA has identified Pascal’s good-natured Javi as a ruthless international drug lord, which requires Cage to bumble through some painfully unfunny undercover spy games as agents played by Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz bark orders at him through a headset.
Cage, as usual, understands the assignment. In this case, that amounts to essentially putting the hallmarks of his “nouveau shamanic” acting style into quotation marks. In its own sketch-comedy way, it’s a layered performance, with the star playing himself as a relaxed eccentric who must occasionally meet the demands of the situation with some characteristic bellowing, sobbing, and hip-thrusting. The movie saves his most over-the-top line readings for sporadic conversations with an imaginary doppelgänger — a digitally airbrushed scene partner whose Elvisian snarling feels like Cage spoofing the stereotype of a quintessentially quotable Cage turn. Yet Gormican does nothing with this split-personality device; it’s a throwaway gag.
A love letter to himself
We’re supposed to marvel at what a good sport Cage is here, enduring cracks about how he used to be a bigger star and how he could stand to say no to a project sometimes. But these jokes are really compliments in disguise, akin to the softballs they lob in job interviews when they ask you to identify your biggest weaknesses. The portrait of Cage that emerges is of an artist who’s devoted to his craft but still humble, a celebrity unfailingly polite to his fans, and a workhorse who does a lot of movies not for the money, but because, gosh darn it, he just enjoys acting! Even the critiques of his fictional fatherhood are flattering: He annoys his daughter by … being a passionate cinephile who encourages her to watch silent movies! As tongue-in-cheek as the title sounds, it accurately captures the fawning tone of this jokey self-portrait — the sense that Cage is in fact starring in a love letter to himself.
Maybe he deserves one. Contrary to the perception of the guy as a lazy check-casher, he does tend to bring an emotional intensity to his work, even when that work is well beneath him. There is something to be said for making a lot of movies, to not preciously overthinking what each will mean in the larger context of your career. And Cage can still deliver a remarkable performance, as he did just last summer as the sorrowful culinary luminary of Pig, a much more perceptive film about art, dedication, and celebrity. Cage is perfectly aware of how his choices — the projects he’s picked over the years, the volatility he’s brought to them — have left the court of public opinion divided on his value, with partisans in both the “genius” and the “incorrigible ham” camps. So why not dine out on both perceptions with an irreverent wink?
The problem with The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent isn’t that the film’s an ego-stroking victory lap. It’s that Cage deserves a better tribute to his showbiz legacy than one that consists largely of starstruck onlookers yelling, “The guy’s a fucking legend!” What we have here is more meme than movie. And as an action comedy without a single memorable set piece, it succeeds only in making one appreciate the relative dumb fun of the actor’s numerous direct-to-video potboilers, which delivered the goods without so much self-satisfied smirking. By the time his highness is choking up through a screening of Paddington 2 (a shameless appeal to the Twitter hordes), this particular Nicolas Cage fan found himself longing for a Nicolas Cage movie that genuinely utilizes his gifts rather than just broadly, witlessly lionizing them.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent opens in theaters April 22. For more reviews and writing by A.A. Dowd, visit his Authory page.