Nicolas Cage has long had a certain perspective on the kinds of roles he plays and how that affects his public image. I remember a Saturday Night Live segment where he proclaimed the essential elements of his movies: 1) All the dialogue is either whispered or screamed, and 2) Everything is on fire. This version of himself — the one who expresses all his emotions explosively and does way too much — is whom he portrays in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, and you don’t need to be a Cage superfan to appreciate his self-parody.
Like his real-life counterpart, the character of “Nick Cage” is a Hollywood star of blockbusters like Con Air and The Rock who has fallen on hard times. Unlike the real Cage, Nick has an Irish ex-wife (Sharon Horgan) and a teenage daughter (Lily Sheen) who hates him because he’s always either working or obsessing over work. Desperate financial straits lead him to accept $1 million from Spanish billionaire Javi Gutiérrez (Pedro Pascal) just to show up at his lavish birthday party on the island of Mallorca. Despite Nick’s initial suspicions that he might have to perform a sex act for the cash, Javi simply wants Nick to star in the movie that he wrote. However, two CIA agents (Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz) inform Nick that Javi’s fortune comes not from olive farming but rather from illegal arms deals. The movie star becomes a spy for them inside Javi’s compound.
Having previously made the eminently forgettable romantic comedy That Awkward Moment, director/co-writer Tom Gormican shows much more energy romping through Cage’s filmography, engineering a number of shots copied from Face/Off and writing in a discussion of Guarding Tess that will make you reconsider that wifty 1994 comedy. (What, no love for It Could Happen to You? That’s a tremendous film.) I do hope the real Cage isn’t haunted by a doppelgänger named Nicky who looks like Cage during his Valley Girl years and tells him to be more selective about his roles and act more like a movie star. I am a bit disappointed by the subplot in which Nick and Javi work on their own screenplay that’s obviously for the movie that they’re in, but Pascal gives an impressive comic performance as an achingly sincere fanboy who can’t believe that he’s talking to his idol, and the chemistry is such that you believe Nick and Javi would become great friends in a single day.
Gormican and Kevin Etten’s script gets a lot right about actors, like their “I can do this” self-belief and their tendency to recite dialogue from past scripts no matter what the situation. The handler played by Haddish has an instinct for talking to actors — she manipulates Nick into risking his life by asking how he would feel if someone else’s predicament happened to him — and I’m sad that the filmmakers couldn’t think of something more creative to do with that. Neil Patrick Harris is wasted, too, as Nick’s agent.
Who cares, though, when a set piece with Nick dropping acid with Javi and the two fleeing imaginary enemies is worth the price of admission in itself? The same goes when Cage’s fictional alter ego sees a wax statue of his character from Face/Off and immediately offers to buy it despite finding it hideous, which is what you can imagine the real Cage doing. Plenty of actors can play the fool, but when that fool bears your name and some of your less attractive traits, that’s when it takes admirable courage (or, alternately, obliviousness) to be ridiculous. Cage does more than send himself up here; he manages to make Nick into a figure of pathos who wants to be a better husband and father but doesn’t know how, except by turning into a real-life version of the action heroes he plays on the screen. Even if it’s easier now that the real Cage is out of debt, it takes good grace to agree to do this, and great skill to make it as funny as The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent
Starring Nicolas Cage and Pedro Pascal. Directed by Tom Gormican. Written by Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten. Rated R.