The knock on Nicolas Cage in recent years is that he will seemingly take any role. This is supported by the drecky state of his IMDB page, which features a few jewels and a ton of rote thrillers and action joints that have muddled the legacy of a man who was once (in quick succession) Hollywood’s foremost on-screen weirdo, an amazingly immersive and gifted actor, and the high-octane king of the box office.
In-between the height of Cage’s powers as an uber-method actor who famously ate a cockroach on camera for his role in Vampire’s Kiss and his Oscar winning performance as an expiring drunk in Leaving Las Vegas rests what may be the oddest Cage era: his two-year stint as a light comedy and rom-com leading man.
At the time, the transition seemed to make a lot of sense to Cage, who had followed his breakout performances in Raising Arizona and Moonstruck by playing tortured characters in little seen projects like Time to Kill and Zandalee.
Here he is in a 1994 interview explaining his conscious effort to move away from his “quirky” roots.
“I’ve decided that people respond better to me in comedies than all that quirky stuff I did in the past,” he says.
“It’s funny, when I was a kid I used to like to make people laugh. I was in a very tough school and it became sort of a survival mechanism for me. But then I saw James Dean in East of Eden and I decided I wanted to be like him.
“I made a lot of angst-ridden pictures and found myself approaching bankruptcy. So I decided to go back to what came naturally to me – being funny rather than unconventional.”
It would be easy to look at those words and all the films that have followed and assume that Cage abandoned his comedic pursuits for big budget spectacle films and the like as soon as he found high ground again in his career. But did he? To me it seems Cage embraced Sean Penn’s biting assessment of him as a “performer” by continuing to go over-the-top in a way that feels comedic. As Cage has said before, he is in on the joke.
Look at Castor Troy in Face/Off, his work in The Wicker Man, and even the Ghost Rider films. At their heart, these are full-throated performances from someone who is both trying to get a reaction out of the audience and trying to keep himself from being bored. You know, just like a hyperactive kid who is trying to make people laugh.
Ironically, some of Cage’s early ’90s comedies don’t possess that kind of energy. In fact, some don’t seem to possess any energy at all.