The most important shot in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent features Nicolas Cage encountering a life-sized replica of his Face/Off psychopath Castor Troy double-fisting a pair of custom gold-plated pistols. After a career as one of Hollywood’s great gunslingers—a crack shot for hire on projects of wildly varying caliber—the actor is being forced to look down the barrel of his own legacy. He isn’t sure that he likes what he sees. “It’s … grotesque,” Cage measures, eyes gleaming with a combination of horror, recognition, and maybe desire. Moments later, he makes an about-face: “I’ll give you $20,000 for it.”
The existential sight gag of Cage holding a gun to his own head is complemented elsewhere in Tom Gormican’s film by a running joke in which the star—cast satirically as a cash-strapped, narcissistic version of himself, holed up in the Chateau Marmont and chasing increasingly elusive A-list roles while contemplating retirement—hallucinates yet another alter ego: his younger, floppy-haired, CGI-smoothed self, who goes by the name of Nicky. This second Cage comes decked out in Wild at Heart drag (his jacket is a symbol of his individuality … and his belief in personal freedom) and hurls accusations at his mirror image about the stupidity of his squandering their hard-earned movie-star status. It’s an intertextual allusion to Adaptation and its identical-twin screenwriters, Donald and Charlie, both played by Cage with persnickety, Oscar-nominated brilliance. Although where those brothers merely raged at each other, the two Nicks in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent actually get into a fistfight and later make out—as good a metaphor as any for what is basically a movie-star vanity project by proxy.
The confrontation with the self has long been a Nic Cage specialty, starting with the identity-crisis high jinks of Face/Off and Adaptation and continuing on the schizophrenic comic-book metaphysics of Ghost Rider, whose hero, Johnny Blaze, struggles to repress his pyrotechnical id. Ditto H.I. in Raising Arizona, whose love for “the little things” gets twisted into the murderous, bunny-killing rage of the Demon Biker of the Apocalypse, a bounty hunter sprung from the sweet-hearted outlaw’s subconscious. “Let the pig loose,” the eccentric director Werner Herzog once said while explaining his strategy while directing Cage as the sociopathic protagonist of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call–New Orleans. In Cage’s best movies, the link between his talents and the characters’ acting out is made explicit. Leaving Las Vegas is a thoroughly realistic depiction of alcoholism—and it deservedly won Cage his only Academy Award for Best Actor—but the film’s tragic parable of flamboyant self-destruction under blinking neon lights is on some level a meditation on performance. It’s about the desire to make a spectacle of oneself and then die.
The great paradox of Cage’s wildly varied filmography is that even as the actor contains multitudes, he is always, somehow, himself. Some actors are chameleons, but Cage—who memorably side-eyed some iguanas in Bad Lieutenant—doesn’t shape-shift. The next time he genuinely disappears into a role will be the first.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent knows this, and has been designed as a showcase for Cage to go fully mask off—and to exercise, as well as exorcize, his gifts. Sadly, while Cage’s talent is massive, as far as meta-movies go, The Unbearable Weight is weightless—not as sophisticated as Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation or Being John Malkovich or even as witty as JCVD, the underrated Belgian comedy that gave Jean-Claude Van Damme the last action hero treatment. Instead of digging deep, Gormican’s good-natured comedy settles for being the cinematic equivalent of a Nicolas Cage meme—an affectionate but shallow bit of satire that never threatens to really deconstruct (or demolish) its subject. The “Nic Cage” we see here is obviously a stylized facsimile, with standard-issue family problems in search of a redemption narrative. Any reckoning with the actual weight (or temptations) of fame feels sanitized and superficial, like a PG-13 celebrity roast.
In fact, Cage’s recent wonderful Reddit AMA cut deeper to the core of his skill set and philosophy, as well as to what he thinks of himself and his own mythology. In response to a question about whether he thinks he’s done anything new with the art of acting, Cage responded: “I think many of the choices I’ve made have been inspired by film stars from the silent era, as well as cultural expression of performance like Kabuki and some of the Golden Age actors like [James] Cagney … I don’t know how to say I’ve done something new because those elements are always on my mind.”
To return to that grotesque Castor Troy mannequin, it’s the prized property of Javi (Pedro Pascal), an enthusiastic collector of Cage ephemera, big and small. Javi is fabulously wealthy, to the point that he’s able to persuade the star to make a cameo at his lavish weekend-long birthday party in Mallorca—a gig that the actor takes in a guiltily mercenary spirit. (His manager, played by Neil Patrick Harris, says it’s easy money.) Javi is also an aspiring screenwriter, and he’s written a movie for Nic that the latter rejects without reading: He’s too busy getting blackout drunk on the beach and marinating in self-pity. Where the movie locates its sweet—and, for a while, sustaining—sense of surprise is in the way Nic and Javi realize that they’re kindred souls anyway. They bond over a shared love of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (in reality one of Cage’s favorite movies, and a clear inspiration for his acting style, especially in the bugnuts Expressionist homage Vampire’s Kiss) and make plans to rewrite the screenplay together. Pascal is a gifted comedian, and he does something tricky here, inhabiting a character who can’t help but be self-effacing given that his scene partner is one of the most famous movie stars on the planet, while also giving him enough shading so that a movie designed as a brand-name showcase mutates into a double act. When Cage and Pascal are just hanging out, The Unbearable Weight feels like a credible, ’80s-style buddy comedy, complete with a road trip, cliff diving, and a paranoid acid-dropping interlude.
It’s also a ’90s-style action movie, inserting footage of Con Air (and Cage’s spectacular hair therein) in a prologue that sees the daughter of a progressive Spanish political candidate kidnapped by drug runners. This plot point loops back to Javi and what seems to be his secret, double life. In an attempt to unravel the mystery of Javi’s wealth—and extend the movie’s one-joke premise past the length of a comedy sketch—Nic goes undercover for the CIA, represented here by an oddly cast but game Tiffany Haddish. (Low-hanging fruit, perhaps, but her character gets a pretty good laugh out of invoking The Croods.)
The cartel story line is, of course, just a pretense for metaphysical high jinks (and a climax involving Cage in an outrageous latex disguise) but even as The Unbearable Weight tries to take the piss out of globe-trotting espionage thrillers—and the cynical, studio-industrial machine churning them out—it ends up hitting too many of the same predictable marks along the way. In a movie like Adaptation, what’s at stake in the symbolic interplay between Charlie and Donald Kaufman is nothing less than the question of originality in art. It didn’t have an answer to that question, but at least it was genuinely searching underneath all that arch, Kaufmanesque subterfuge. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent isn’t looking for anything; it’s just getting off on its own cleverness.
Ultimately, the biggest problem with The Unbearable Weight is that for all its Cage arcana—its endless references, shout-outs, and clips from Guarding Tess—it isn’t quite willing to meet its star on his terms. When Cage is great, his massive talent is wielded as an alienation effect: Even a righteous revenge saga like Pig is complicated by the ways he holds the audience at a distance. Cage’s strangeness is part of what makes him endearing, but just endearing is the last thing we want him to be, and he’s the wrong actor to teach us lessons about the importance of friends, family, and humility (which is why The Weather Man is a bad Nicolas Cage movie). The final scenes of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent show the pig back in the pen, contentedly domesticated. If Gormican’s intention is to put these images of compromise in scare quotes—to suggest something about the nature of Cage’s fantasies, or our own, or the gap between them—he hasn’t succeeded. And if he’s being earnest in his shameless embrace of clichés, then the movie as a whole is a failure of nerve. There’s a difference between ambivalence and having it both ways, and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is too conventional to spend so much time mocking conventions. The running motif of Cage versus Cage is clever, but it’s also self-defeating—an emblem of a movie that loses its own face-off.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.