There’s a great idea buried in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, a clever meta-movie starring Nicolas Cage as the actor Nicolas Cage that nonetheless fails to live up to its full potential, thus stranding Cage in another middling action film, albeit one that does have its comedic charms.
Cage plays Cage as a down-on-his-luck actor riddled with debt who is so desperate for a role in David Gordon Green‘s next Boston-based movie that he’s even willing to read(!) for the part — and in the driveway of the Chateau Marmont, no less. Cage delivers a parody of a Boston accent that’s good for a few laughs in this scene, but speaking as someone from that region, I can’t say I blame Green for going in a different direction.
A humbled Cage is ready to retire from acting when he lands the role of a lifetime — a million-dollar offer to attend the birthday party of a Nicolas Cage superfan named Javi (Pedro Pascal), who also happens to be a notorious arms dealer and amateur screenwriter. All Cage has to do is travel to Javi’s private compound in Spain, play Movie Star, and have a good time. What’s the worst that could happen?
Well, as soon as Cage steps foot off the private plane that has taken him to this luxurious paradise, he’s recruited by the CIA to bring down Javi, who is suspected of kidnapping the daughter of the president of Catalan to influence a big election. Is the actor Nicolas Cage ready to step up and be the kind of hero he has played on the big screen so many times before?
That’s the intriguing set-up here, and it’s a pretty good one. Director Tom Gormican and co-writer Kevin Etten have a lot of fun deconstructing Cage’s onscreen persona and identifying why audiences love him so much, and they deserve credit for convincing Cage to do this in the first place after the Oscar-winning actor reportedly turned down the project several times — I just wish they had built a stronger vehicle around him.
This is ultimately a charming buddy movie that loses its way about halfway through when Cage’s family starts to play a bigger role. Though their presence makes this mission personal for him, thereby upping the stakes for his character, their involvement is fairly perfunctory, like any one of the generic action movies that Cage has spent the last decade making — with a few exceptions here and there, including last year’s heartfelt drama Pig.
While Cage and Pascal have solid chemistry together — a scene in which they take LSD together (and drive down a winding coastal road, which I personally would not recommend), is a high point (literally) — the script manages to waste Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz as the two CIA agents, and I’m not so sure that their characters couldn’t have been combined and given double the lines, which might’ve made one of them more effective. Neil Patrick Harris does what he can with limited screen time as Cage’s slippery agent, and you should keep an eye on up-and-comer Lily Sheen, the real-life daughter of Michael Sheen and Kate Beckinsale who plays Cage’s daughter here, but Sharon Horgan feels a little out of place as Cage’s (latest) ex-wife.
Pascal might have managed to steal Cage’s own movie from him were it not for the (best) scenes in which Cage talks to a younger version of himself thanks to the Hollywood magic of CGI. Nicky (as Cage calls the younger actor) appears as a figment of Cage’s imagination and recalls his appearance at the age of 26 circa Wild at Heart. Though Nicky is a digital impostor, you can’t take your eyes off of him, as he brings a youthful energy that is both undeniably raw and utterly transfixing, and it speaks to why Cage has endured as a movie star since the ’80s. There’s a rugged masculinity to him and yet a neurotic sensitivity as well, the yin and the yang fighting for control of his eccentric public persona.
There are nods to many movies from Cage’s 90s heyday, ranging from Guarding Tess and Con Air to my personal favorite, The Rock, but ultimately, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent feels like a movie made for Film Twitter, with nods to the brilliance of Paddington 2 and how Mandy was a masterpiece (it wasn’t). That said, one thing I liked about this movie is that it never denigrates the many forgettable movies Cage has made over the past decade, even if it does take a shot at his Razzie-nominated performance in The Wicker Man.
But as Cage himself says in this movie, an actor doesn’t put themselves down, and I commend the Massive Talent team for celebrating the Essence of Cage with this movie. I don’t know how many actors this script really could’ve worked for, but even if there are a few others (like Cage’s Face/Off foe John Travolta), I’m certainly glad that Cage put himself out there and took on a role like this. I just wish it was a movie as successful in its execution as it was as a pitch. This might have made a killer short film or web series, but as a movie, it’s kind of the same joke told over and over again.
I saw another review call this movie “lazy” and while I wouldn’t go that far, it does feel like the filmmakers had a great idea and then kind of rested on their laurels and didn’t really push themselves too far beyond that. Had this film gone more of the Charlie Kaufman–Spike Jonze route, the rather pretentious title might make more sense, but this isn’t that kind of movie and the branding issue is clearly reflected in its low tracking numbers this weekend ($8 million to $13 million).
Is The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent a movie you have to see in the theaters? I’ll be honest… it isn’t. Not by my standards. But it is worth a rental six weeks from now or whenever it hits VOD because it does have quite a few laughs and Cage is clearly having a blast here, especially when he’s paired with Pascal. I’m glad I saw it, it’s just one of those mid-budget movies that studios typically sell to streamers these days — far from unbearable, but not quite representative of massive talent. As it stands, this movie is strictly for diehard fans of Nicolas Cage, as many of its best gags will sail over the heads of younger viewers unfamiliar with his vibrant filmography.
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