How much do you love Nicolas Cage? We have gone on record with our own Cage idolatry, of course, but it’s a question worth considering in regard to the original Valley Guy, the man who raised hell (and Arizona) and modeled snakeskin jackets, the onscreen consumer of live cockroaches, the Oscar-winning actor, the rider of ghosts and hater of bees — on a scale of one to “scraping at the doorrr!!!,” where does your unconditional worship rank?
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, 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 past two decades of it, and that seeing Real Cage play a Screen Cage who’s stooping to read for parts, guzzling down bourbon, suffering from financial difficulties, and experiencing personal 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.” (The actor has 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 understand 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 CIA — in the form of the bickering duo of Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz, who’ve done this double act enough to tour it on the road now if they wanted — has taken an interest. They recruit a reluctant Cage to help find some usable evidence on Javi. Nic 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 critiquing 21st-century celebrity culture. This is a movie that 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 co-writer 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. It ended with a genuine 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 reenact 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. During the post-premiere Q&A at SXSW, the actor mentioned that there was a lot more “Nicky” material that didn’t make it in, which is a shame; those brief sequences bristle with the sort of nutso, kinetic energy that suggests a wilder, deeper, more demented comedy is waiting in the wings, dying to steal the spotlight. The cobbled-together end result does give our man a golden opportunity to strut and fret his hour upon the stage, poking fun at past professional highs and lows and — maybe we’re speculating too much here — using this detour through the fictional Nic Cage metaverse as a safe space for working out some real neuroses.
That’s the sense you get watching him transcend what can be some pretty thin comic material at times. Or perhaps it’s just that Cage’s commitment, not to mention his massive talent, is so strong that he makes you think he’s spelunking in psychological territory rather than just wading through a tide of winks and nudges. You wish the movie wasn’t content to be a feature-length meme and truly deserved what Cage is doing with this long, hard look in the fun-house mirror. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is not unbearable by any means. It just should have been so much better.
A version of this review ran as part of our SXSW coverage back in March.