There he was, sauntering into the Paramount Theatre like he owned it. (Wait, does he own it? The man bought castles and dinosaur skulls and albino king cobras. [One quick Goggle search later] Ok, no, he does not.) The cheers grew louder, then deafening, as he nodded, waved, greeted a few folks and then took his seat. He had on a plaid suit, which he would later explain by saying that he loves shortbread, and this was his tribute to the boxes that house this delicacy. There were a number of famous and noteworthy people in the audience for this late Saturday night SXSW screening, but everyone had gathered to see one person, and one person alone. And here he was, in the flesh. All hail the king. All hail Nicolas Motherfucking Cage.
The vibe for the premiere of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, the meta-comedy in which Nicolas Cage is finally cast in the role he was born to play — i.e., Nicolas Cage — was closer to a faith-based gathering than a film festival screening, which is not uncommon with the bigger-name, prime-slot SXSW extravaganzas. The festival’s longtime director of film Janet Pierson and her programming team have been great at assembling a wide variety of microindies, music documentaries and scrappy, DIY movies, the kind that tend to get overlooked at a lot of fests — it’s a lovely showcase for low-budget, left-of-center movies, even if the ratio of hits to misses can be off some years. (Full disclosure: PMC, Rolling Stone‘s parent company, owns a stake in SXSW.)
But studios love to bring their bigger, brasher, blockbuster-y comedies and genre outings down to the Austin, Texas festival because the audiences here tends to go nuts over that type of stuff in a way that most fest crowds don’t. Which means that something like, say, the Sandra Bullock action-com/rom-com whatsit The Lost City, which premiered a little earlier Saturday evening, plays like gangbusters regardless of whether it’s the second coming of Romancing the Stone or not. So really, if you were going to unveil Unbearable at any sort of gathering of the cinephile tribes, it would be this one. The unconditional Cage love is strong in these parts. And when you entered the Paramount last night, you were not coming to a SXSW premiere. You were attending the Church of Nicolas Cage.
— Caroline Siede (@CarolineSiede) March 13, 2022
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent — so named because A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was already claimed — takes it for granted that you, the viewer, know and love the 58-year-old movie star’s work, that you can recite many lines of his dialogue and debate the merits of his filmography down to the last detail. (Who’s more likely to win in a fight: Castor Troy or Cameron Poe? The answer is, it depends on who’s holding the bunny.) It assumes you know the ups and downs of his career, especially the last two decades of it, and that seeing Real Cage play a Screen Cage who’s stooping to read for parts, suffering from financial difficulties and experiencing personal, if not existential strife, will create an interesting sense of frisson. Real Cage is also playing Gonzo Go-For-Baroque Young Cage as well, a figment of Screen Cage’s imagination-slash-cracked conscience who he calls “Nicky.” (In the post-screening Q&A, the actor confirmed that he based this Wild at Heart era version of himself mostly on his appearance on a 1990 British talk show, and when you watch that clip, you’ll 100-percent see what he means.)
This fictionalized down-and-out Cage gets the news from his agent (a beautifully unctuous Neil Patrick Harris) that a billionaire wants to fly the star out to his mansion in Mallorca, Spain, and will pay him $1 million to make a personal appearance at his birthday party. The host, Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal), is a Cage superfan, complete with a shrine dedicated to all things Nicolas. He’s also an international arms dealer, which means the C.I.A. — in the form of the bickering duo of Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz, who’ve done this double act enough to take it on the road now — has taken an interest. They recruit a reluctant Cage to help find some usable evidence on Javi. He just wants to get paid and get out alive. If he can also purchase the wax statue of his Face/Off character that Mr. Gutierrez keeps in a glass case, all the better.
For a while, Unbearable coasts along on this life-imitating-art-chopping-up-life-for-laughs vibe, giving Cage and Pascal the chance to make a warped, goofy buddy comedy involving dropping acid, tooling around Spain’s coast in a sports car, working on possible screenplay ideas and bonding over the healing power of Paddington 2. There’s a meaty take on the rabbit holes of fame and the wormholes of fandom slithering just beneath the surface, as well as some brain-tickling ideas about the way that a movie star’s legacy and persona(e) can become a prison. It is isn’t afraid to take some off-road detours and side trips in terms of 21st century stardom. The movie loves itself some references and callbacks and in-jokes. If you’ve ever wanted to see Nic Cage tongue-kiss himself, consider yourself extremely lucky.
And then, well…director Tom Gormican and his cowriter Kevin Etten just decide to turn everything into a standard Nicolas Cage action flick, with gunfights and set pieces and rescuing his kidnapped ex-wife (Sharon Horgan) and estranged daughter (Lily Mo Sheen) and battling Javi’s right-hand man as he tries to make a play for taking over the criminal empire. You might remember another Nicolas Cage movie, Adaptation. (2002), going from witty commentary to third-act brouhaha, although that was a heavily ironic poke at Hollywood’s formulaic screenwriting process. That was a real-versus-reel face-off. This just feels like a cop-out.
The logline that had been floating around for a while regarding this film had been that Screen Cage would be forced to re-enact Real Cage’s best-known roles to delight his host and help rescue his family, but if that was once the idea that fueled this hall-of-mirrors project, it’s been left on the cutting room floor. So, per the Q&A session, were scenes of famous Cage creations like Troy and Leaving Las Vegas‘ Ben Sanderson down up in German expressionist make-up — Real Cage’s love of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a running joke — and a lot more interactions between Screen Cage and Nicky, which suggests a lot of great stuff get ixnayed. Memo to filmmakers: Consistently going on about all the great things we’ll one day see on the Blu-Ray, after we’ve just watched a movie characterized by late-act missed opportunities feels like an insult. Enough with the teasing of future pleasures. Who are you, Marvel?
Not that most of the rabid, raging Cage-uns in the audience minded. They were here to see a movie, sure, but moreso to simply bask in the glow of His Caginess. And to see the actor light up when he walked onstage after, the man and his disciples, was to see why star power remains a true-blue reason to go to the movies. Watching him banter with costars and affectionately needle the movie’s creators and, yes, graciously accept a rose (!) from a crowd member made the film itself feel like both an apertif and an afterthought. There was the real deal, smiling and laughing in front of the screen rather than on it, carrying the weight of his massive talent with grace and ease.