How Nic Cage’s Decision To Become A Comedy Leading Man Saved — And Almost Ruined — His Career

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.

Honeymoon in Vegas

From the pen of Blazing Saddles and Fletch screenwriter Andrew Bergman, Honeymoon in Vegas is the best of Cage’s straight-up comedies thanks to a great performance by James Caan and a premise that seems like it was made to be the perfect spoof of Indecent Proposal (save for the fact that it came out before the Demi Moore film). Bottom line: this is just a fun, screwball comedy filled with flying Elvises and one man’s journey to reclaim his lost love. Cage has his moments and his ability to draw comedy from a put-upon moment serves the film well.

It’s also set to become a Broadway musical in the very near future. So I suppose that’s some indication that it has stood the test of time.

Amos and Andrew

It’s easy to see why the role of habitual criminal Amos Odell appealed to Cage. On paper, this looks like a movie that was built to smartly lampoon racial stereotypes, but instead it mostly falls flat and the lack of chemistry between Jackson and Cage doesn’t help the situation or the forced buddy-comedy feel of the film. Some things get better with age. This is not one of those things.

Guarding Tess 

This isn’t a romantic comedy, per se, but it matches some of the rhythms of the genre as Cage’s secret service agent learns to tolerate and care for Shirley MacLaine’s demanding former first lady. The movie isn’t really funny, but it isn’t a stab in the eye either. I actually re-watched this last night to freshen my memory, and I can confidently say that this is a perfect in-flight movie — boring and benign. With that said, Cage does come alive briefly at the end when MacLaine’s character is put in harm’s way and it’s actually powerful. Because that’s what Nic Cage is capable of, even when he’s wearing mainstream shackles in a mom comedy just five years after sharing a smoke on-screen with a chameleon and six years after Vampire’s Kiss.

It Could Happen To You 

Another Andrew Bergman collaboration, this one seemingly channels Frank Capra to tell the most charming fairy tale about adultery that I have ever seen.

Cage is turned ALL-THE-WAY down for this one. He plays an “aw shucks” good-guy cop who honorably keeps his promise to a waitress (Bridget Fonda) and gives her half of his lotto winnings ($2 million) as a tip.

Say what you will about Cage, but the guy has range. A year later he would be dead-tossing a stiff out of a truck in Kiss of Death, but here he’s starring in a film that makes While You Were Sleeping look as gritty as Black Rain.

Trapped In Paradise

This is essentially a saccharin and snow coated version of Bill Murray’s woefully under-loved Quick Change. Here, Cage plays a hesitant criminal who teams up with his ex-con brothers (Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz) to rob a bank in a small town that they are utterly incapable of leaving in one piece. Hilarity does not ensue as the trio gets cozy with the townsfolk, but never fear, a happy ending is just around the corner.

According to Jon Lovitz, filming wasn’t a pleasant experience for the cast. And it shows. Cage, to his credit, didn’t mail in his performance, but the role and the project were far beneath him and it seems likely that he recognized that and saw the film as a bellwether for the kinds of roles that would have continued to come his way had he not forced another course correction. And in 1995, Cage did exactly that when he turned down an overture from Jim Carrey to be in Dumb and Dumber, choosing instead to star in Leaving Las Vegas.

For some actors, such a ballsy decision would be worthy of divided praise between their instincts and the Gods that allowed them to be right, but Nicolas Cage’s career choices aren’t guided by the Gods. Luck has nothing to do with it. Instead, everything seems deliberate and constructed to please or intellectually titillate him.

This is a curious and well-read practitioner of performance. Someone that comes off as a little (or a lot) weird, but someone who seems to always see some value in each role that he plays. Whether that value is seen or appreciated by others is another question, but Cage is also the kind that doesn’t seem to care about the critics, and he’s certainly the rare and durable type of actor who is always threatening to alter our perception of what he can do with just one role. So I suppose we should keep watching… at least until he makes Left Behind 2.