When The Irishman innovated de-aging effects in 2019, few could have foreseen its use to resurrect the batshit, snake skinned Nicolas Cage of 1990’s Wild at Heart. Fewer still would have expected this iteration of Nicolas Cage to appear on screen next to… Nicolas Cage.Seeing the Nick Cage of 2022 argue, fight and even make out with his 26-year-old self are the most outrageous meta moments of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, Tom Gormican’s smartly realised buddy film.
Now, Cage has long been one of Hollywood’s leading idiosyncrasies, building a lengthy filmography that ranges from the bargain bin to the Academy Awards. Yet this filmwould not have worked 10 years ago, even though it draws on his ‘90s blockbusters such as The Rock and Face/Off.
This is because the previous decade or so saw a new kind of appreciation for Nicolas Cage. Around 2010/11, the actor began to indulge his “nouveau shamanic” acting style in a dubious barrage of films. Some of them weren’t dubious at all, such as the crazed brilliance of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. But that film was followed by the likes of Drive Angry, Tokarev, Outcast, Stolen and a slew of others with titles so generic that they are impossible to remember.
Yet even when Cage was starring in the lowest footnotes of his career, like the aforementioned Tokarev, he would still bring some of that bath salt energy, lovingly described by some as “Cage rage”. However, this fun-poking belies an actor who takes his craft rather seriously. In an interview with IndieWire, Cage expressed irritation with his “meme-ification”, noting that it tarnished the “lyrical, internal, and poetic” elements of his work, namely Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy.
Despite this, Cage seems to be humouring the memes for now, thanks to the intelligent script from Kevin Etten and director Tom Gormican. Cage told Variety that Gormican wanted to “make a movie that was about people, not about caricatures or cartoons.” Ultimately, I think Gormican has done both, for his film riffs on the cult of Nicolas Cage while giving us some idea of the actor’s wayward and self-indulgent private life.
Cage tackles the character of himself with all the energy that you’d hope, and it’s a pretty self-deprecating spectacle. He’s on good terms with his ex-wife Olivia (Sharon Horgan) and their teenage daughter Addy (Lily Mo Sheen), but he frustrates them with ploys for attention and bores Addy with his overbearing tastes and preferences. Boozy and self-centred, he’s the proverbial egotist, and it is admirable that Cage plays it without any invitation for sympathy.
However, the key relationship in this film is not with his family but with Javi (Pedro Pascal), a Spanish billionaire super fan who offers Cage one million dollars to visit his lavish Mediterranean home, where Javi hopes they will work on a film script together. Strapped for cash and saddled with debt, Cage begrudgingly accepts. But just when he thinks this will be an easy gig, Nick is kidnapped on a cobbled Spanish street by two CIA operatives who inform him that Javi is a ruthless arms dealer and that he must use his actorly powers to go undercover on a dangerous informant mission.
All of this sounds awfully contrived, I know. It smacks of a scriptwriter who doesn’t know how to develop his high concept, to push beyond the meta idea and build a full narrative. Yet the strength of Cage and Javi’s chemistry is so strong – they are brilliant together – that the writers manage to invest you in the plot’s silliness. Besides, Etten and Gormican make a clever nod to the plot’s absurdity. As Cage and Javi develop their script together, Cage suggests a kidnapping plot that displeases his new creative partner, who thinks it a fanciful departure from their story’s “serious drama”. So, just in case anyone is groaning at the narrative, Etten and Gormican show us that they are, too. It is this knowing and playfully metafictional humour that makes the film.
It is also a film of impressive set pieces. There’s a great moment where Cage, embroiled in a mission gone awry, is on the cusp of losing consciousness. Thinking on her feet, CIA operative Vivan (Tiffany Haddish) yells “action!” in his earpiece, resuscitating Cage in an instant as if he’s starring in another action movie. It’s a playful gag about Cage’s earnest love of acting. After all, Cage once told Charlie Rose that his “body was an instrument” and he did so with such ingenuous enthusiasm that he didn’t sound like a pompous arse.
I’d usually argue that onlyCage could say that and remain unscathed, but Pedro Pascal may be an exception. As Javi, Pascal meets Cage’s screen presence effortlessly, playing the awkward fan boy in a performance that alternates between amusing subtlety and enjoyable hysteria. The leads are at their best during a calamitous joyride through town, which is a crackerjack sequence that had my screening in howls of laughter.
At a time where so many comedies are achingly derivative and obvious, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent delivers not only an original metafictional comedy but also a blast of a buddy film, too.