Eleven years ago, a video editor named Harry Hanrahan set the internet aflame with a YouTube supercut titled “Nicolas Cage Losing His Shit.” Splicing together high-octane clips from cult classics like Vampire’s Kiss and The Wicker Man alongside lesser-known obscurities like 1991’s erotic spectacle Zandalee and 1993’s noir-ish flop Deadfall, the video expertly served up four minutes of Nicolas Cage screaming his gills off. Cage fans and skeptics alike ate it up.
That cut inspired other highlight reels — Nicolas Cage laughing, Nicolas Cage being silent — but it also presaged a decade in which Cage was often treated more as meme than human. Younger generations encountered Cage’s face plastered onto sequin pillows, novelty mugs, and reaction GIFs, but did they realize the man was among the best actors of his generation, responsible for transcendent performances in films as varied as Moonstruck, Leaving Las Vegas, and Face/Off?
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (★★☆☆☆) is the first Nicolas Cage movie that seems designed to mimic the experience of watching one of those supercuts — albeit stretched to 107 minutes. Starring Cage as “Nick Cage,” a fictionalized version of himself, this flashy, metatextual action-comedy hybrid has been marketed as not just the new Nicolas Cage movie, but the “most Nicolas Cage movie ever.”
Yet its affectionate pastiche is too calculated for its own good, never summoning the uncontrollable emotion or bug-eyed intensity of Cage’s, well, Cage-iest performances. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is maximalist and muddled, a bold experiment that’s stuffed with knowing (no pun intended) winks at Cage’s past movies without finding much to say about them.
The film’s alluring backstory has received lots of press: how Cage turned the role down multiple times; how he eventually signed on, and even co-produced the film, after receiving a personal letter from writer-director Tom Gormican; how, in some stranger-than-fiction twist, the role allowed him to finally pay off the longstanding debts that kept him working at a churning pace throughout the last decade.
In interviews, the real Cage has stressed that this Nick Cage is a fictionalized, “anxiety-ridden” version of himself. His eagerness to draw a distinction is understandable. As Massive Talent begins, Cage is a washed-up action star trying to revitalize his career, desperate for cash, and unable to connect with his teen daughter. He meets with a director (real-life filmmaker David Gordon Green, who directed Cage in 2014’s Joe) about a major role, but is passed over.
Despondent and on the verge of quitting for good, Cage reluctantly accepts an offer to fly to Mallorca and appear at the birthday party of a diehard fan, the mysteriously wealthy Javi (Pedro Pascal), for a cool $1 million. Things take a complicated turn when Cage learns from two CIA agents (Tiffany Haddish, Ike Barinholtz) that his new benefactor is a ruthless arms dealer.
Massive Talent is at its best when it becomes an unlikely buddy comedy. Javi functions as a stand-in for all the superfans on the other side of the screen, and Pascal is good at embodying the awe of a fan who can’t believe he’s breathing the same rarified air as his hero.
Cage has good comic timing, too (there’s a standout scene — reminiscent of The Wolf of Wall Street — where the two men try to mount a wall while tripping on LSD). They bond over their love of film: Javi’s favorite movie is Face/Off, and he has the life-size statue to prove it. Cage passionately extols the brilliance of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a character detail that reflects the actor’s real-life obsession with German Expressionism.
In these moments, Massive Talent threatens to wring something interesting out of its trippy concept — maybe a self-reflexive meta-comedy in the spirit of Being John Malkovich or Adaptation, which is invoked in scenes where Cage plays opposite an imaginary, younger version of himself.
Instead, it shifts into a loud and dull cartel thriller, pandering all the while to fans who want Cage to go full memelord. One scene finds the younger Cage, stylized after one particular Wild at Heart-era TV appearance, pep-talking his present-day self with a long, bellowed F-bomb. The moment recalls a wild scene from Deadfall, but here it lands with the intensity of an actor parodying himself on SNL.
That’s the thing about Massive Talent. It’s loaded with clever references to Cage movies past, but they are deployed randomly and without much insight into what made those performances great: a visual homage to Leaving Las Vegas here, a vehicular nod to Gone in 60 Seconds there.
I did like the moment in which Javi delivers an unexpectedly personal spiel about 1994’s forgotten Guarding Tess — a reminder of how people form emotional connections to cheesy movies that seem inconsequential to others. But these meta-references feel like savvy reminders of better Cage movies you could be watching instead. As a celebration of fandom and movies, it has the heft of an Oscars highlight reel.
A subplot focuses on Cage’s strained relationships with a wholly fictitious daughter (Lily Sheen) and ex-wife (Sharon Horgan), setting up a bland reconciliation arc. The problem is that this fictionalized caricature of Nicolas Cage is simply not as interesting as the real Nicolas Cage. You could say many things about Cage’s personal life — his ex-wives include Patricia Arquette, who sent him on a wild quest to prove his love, and Lisa Marie Presley — but at least it’s not boring.
The irony is, while this “Nick Cage” is desperate to revitalize his career, the real Cage did revitalize his career last year. He gave a remarkable and complex performance, as a chef whose grief has cut him off from society, in Michael Sarnoski’s indie hit Pig. While The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent showcases Cage’s willingness to play the hits, Pig revealed the actor’s ability to still surprise us.
Pig, of course, isn’t referenced in Massive Talent. Maybe Javi hasn’t seen it yet. But he’s gonna love it.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is Rated R and opens Friday, April 22, at Landmark’s Atlantic Plumbing Cinema and theaters nationwide. Visit www.fandango.com.
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