Public perception of actors is a bizarre and multifaceted thing. Our image of them is regularly colored by the fictional roles that they take, and we often admire them based on the charisma and energy they emit on screen. Simultaneously, we also love to mock the stereotypical seriousness of performers who inflate the job of playing pretend as some kind of holy and fragile art form that pops like a soufflé when an on-set PA calls them by their real name instead of their character’s. We love them for their charm, skill, and courage, and we laugh them for their vanity, egos, and questionable career choices.
Nicolas Cage is a case study unto himself in this field, having experienced extreme levels of this duality for decades. He’s an Academy Award winner, taking home the Best Actor trophy for his phenomenal turn in Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas, and earned raves for his work in movies like Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out The Dead, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Raising Arizona, and Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. He’s an experienced blockbuster superstar, with hits like Michael Bay’s The Rock, Simon West’s Con Air, and Jon Turteltaub’s National Treasure. But he’s also the target of unrelenting mockery for films like Neil LaBute’s The Wicker Man, Mark Steven Johnson’s Ghost Rider, and at least a dozen titles that nobody has ever heard of.
Cage’s career is so all over the map that it has gotten hard to define him as an actor – but Tom Gormican’s The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent is like drops of iodine in murky water. It’s a work of perfect self-awareness for the star – inspiring one of his most entertaining performances while having him fictionally confront some of his greatest successes and mistakes – and while it’s undercut by a plot that is both overly familiar and too predictable, it’s a cinematic experience you never stop smiling through.
Playing a fictionalized version of himself, Nicolas Cage is at a point of desperation at the start of The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent, needing work and putting all of his hopes on being a part of a new Boston-set crime thriller directed by David Gordon Green. His obsession with himself and performing has driven away the people he loves – including his ex-wife, Olivia (Sharon Horgan) and 16-year-old daughter, Addy (Lily Sheen) – and his younger self is regularly lingering around in his mind always trying to push him back to superstardom.
Unfortunately, his world is rocked further when he learns that David Gordon Green has decided to go in a different direction, and Cage makes a decision: he is going to retire. Before he announces this move to the world, however, he agrees to one last paycheck offer from his agent (Neil Patrick Harris)… though it isn’t an acting gig. A wealthy man living in Mallorca, Spain named Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal) has offered him $1 million to make an appearance at his birthday party, and while Cage resents the proposal, he needs the money.
It’s only upon Nicolas Cage’s arrival in Europe that he actually learns about who Javi Gutierrez is – and none of it is good news. Briefly abducted by a pair of CIA agents (Tiffany Haddish, Ike Barinholtz), Cage is told that Javi is a notorious international arms dealer who has kidnapped the daughter of a politician (Katrin Vankova) in order to influence a Spanish election. The Face/Off star is convinced to operate undercover in the operation to take him down, though he finds himself torn, as the more time that he spends with his benefactor, the more he comes to like him.
The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent’s story is fun, but we’ve also seen it before.
The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent hangs a lot of its fun on the fantastic novelty that is Nicolas Cage playing Nicolas Cage, and it works in a meta narrative to match, as the principal way that Nic and Javi bond is over a screenplay they develop together. The issue with the latter is that there ultimately isn’t much to it, and it’s reminiscent that executed similar plotting equally as well or better. It was only a few years ago that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg made the controversial The Interview – a movie also featuring a celebrity who gets embroiled in a government operation – and while Tom Gormican’s movie makes moves to shake up one-to-one comparisons, they are mostly obvious choices that audiences will see coming from the start.
As a critic who has a personal affinity for movies within movies, I was mostly let down by the film’s approach, which treats a natural idea like an afterthought. As The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent sprinkles in winking references to its own structure and twists, I couldn’t help but internally compare it to the excellence of Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty and Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths and come away underwhelmed.
Nicolas Cage is equal parts self-deprecating and hilarious – particularly in brilliant dual role moments.
The story told is adequate, which is good enough, because this movie is really just The Nicolas Cage Show, and not only is the actor truly wonderful in the part, but the movie’s expressed deep passion for his body of work only ever feels earnest and never fawning or sycophantic. Cage puts all of his eccentricities out on the table for the film to play with, and every stare, stutter, and syllable-elongation is a delight. In this respect, it’s actually Cage’s imagined younger self (called Nicky) that is The Unbearable Weight’s greatest invention. Nicky is what everyone mentally conjures when they think about Nic Cage, and he is utilized perfectly – hilarious in every appearance, and sparingly used as to keep it fresh.
It’s in all ways an admirable performance from the star, not just because of its elements of honest parody (poking fun at not only his bad movies but past financial issues), but also just because of well-rounded it is. It may seem funny to praise an actor for playing themselves, but Nicolas Cage demonstrates both impressive comedic timing and adept physical humor in the turn (he and a brilliant Pedro Pascal make for a terrific duo) and sincere drama when he confronts his personal issues and the damage he has done in his relationships with Olivia and Addy. Less than a year after the release of Michael Sarnoski’s Pig, Cage continues to do some of the best work of his career.
Its shortcomings aside, The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent is principally a charming film in that it has strong positivity and passion constantly flowing out of it. It takes its pot shots, but there isn’t a single ounce of it that ever feels mean, and for such a Hollywood-centric story, it’s surprisingly cynicism-free in its spirit. Between the love of movies, themes about prioritizing the people you love, and love of Nicolas Cage, the film is full of heart, and one of the more wholesome movies you’ll see featuring kidnappings, shootouts, and an LSD trip.