In an age when movie trailers are rarely big news, the trailer for The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent seemed like big news. The conceit of Nicolas Cage playing Nicolas Cage, in a movie about the weirdo movie star, Nicolas Cage, had the feeling of a meme becoming self-aware. Naturally, the internet went crazy for it. But as Snakes On A Plane once proved, a hit trailer doesn’t always make for a hit movie.
In fact, it’s not even the first time this sort of thing has been attempted (JCVD, anyone?). Frankly, I was wary of the entire concept. I have mixed feelings about Nic Cage being a human meme. I started writing FilmDrunk back in 2007, when Nic Cage always seemed to be a great source of #content, whether he was going broke from buying dinosaur skulls or starring in movies where he got eaten by bees. Which is to say, I was myself at the very least complicit in turning Nic Cage into a human meme.
Yet that was almost 15 years ago. It’s not that I regret making Nic Cage jokes in the late aughts or that “Nic Cage deserves better!” (maybe he does, but I doubt he needs us to defend him, and anyway he made this persona). It’s less that it’s “unfair” to the celebrity and more that it just feels outdated and hack, a relic from the days of epic bacon and I can haz cheezeburger. “Zany Nic Cage project” was already a thing. It’s been a thing. Every year there are at least five of them. With Pig I thought we’d finally come out the other side, into newer and more interesting Nic Cage iterations.
Then again maybe The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent would be part of those newer and more interesting iterations. Maybe it wouldn’t just use Nic Cage as a sight gag, but actually have something say about it. At the very least it’s a fantastic title.
Like the title itself, the film is undeniably clever. Cage plays a manic, self-absorbed version of himself, constantly slipping into actor-on-a-press-tour mode (“it’s kind of like a cosmic gumbo“) to anyone who will listen. In an early scene, Cage, with his uncanny valley hairline and spray paint beard dyed an unnatural charcoal brown, corners a director near the valet stand after a lunch meeting. He verbally assaults the director with a Boston-accented monologue from director’s own script, even after the director has insisted that he doesn’t need Cage to read. Valets and waiters stare bemused, everyone embarrassed by the spectacle except Cage himself. What does Nic Cage care? He’s Nic Cage.
This is the Nic Cage of Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent, a pathological ham who’s constantly name-checking his love for graphic novels and German expressionist films like Tourette’s tics, whose Dracula hair and stage beard are characters unto themselves. He’s struggling to pay his exorbitant bill at the hotel where he lives while trying to repair his relationship with his 16-year-old daughter Addy (Lily Mo Sheen — daughter of Kate Beckinsale and Michael Sheen) who feels like a prop in the ongoing one-man-show of Cage’s life. Meanwhile, his ex-wife Olivia (the wonderful Sharon Horgan from Catastrophe) tries and fails to drag him back down to Earth, swearing and tutting at his antics, Irishly. The devil on his shoulder is his own alter ego, Nicky, an emo-haired, leather-jacketed, CGI-de-aged incarnation of Cage (from Valley Girl?) given to maniacal shrieks who urges Cage to focus more on himself. Cage could win a best-supporting actor for this role.
Into this personal upheaval comes an indecent yet irrefusable proposal: a one million dollar offer to travel to the Spanish island of Mallorca as a birthday present for a reclusive rich guy, Javi Guitierrez, played by Pedro Pascal. “You’re not gonna have to blow him, or let him watch you fuck his wife, or watch him fuck his wife,” assures Cage’s agent, played by Neil Patrick Harris.
Javi turns out to be a sort-of-bashful, movie-obsessed Nic Cage superfan, and the two hit it off. Maybe it’s just what Cage needs to get his groove back.
Cage and Pascal have an undeniable, freak-charming chemistry, and for a while, The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent works beautifully as a goofy buddy comedy. It’s delightful watching these two characters just hang out and bond, dropping acid and living out their own fantasies. Javi is, after all, the only guy in the world as obsessed with Nicolas Cage as Nicolas Cage. And then the CIA gets involved.
As a Nic Cage joke that doesn’t feel like a leftover aughts meme, Unbearable Weight works shockingly well. But it also never quite delivers on any level beyond that, like exploring who Nic Cage is or why we joke about him. The early parts of the film set up the conflict in pretty stark terms — when is this “always on” Hollywood animal going to drop the celebrity persona and get real? That’s an interesting question, but at some point late in the film, there’s a shift, when the conflict becomes whether Nic Cage can save the day.
Did I miss the part where Nic Cage was a real-life action hero? The last bit of Unbearable Weight regresses into meta riffs and references, seemingly as a way to just get to the end of the movie without digging deeper into why we want to see Nic Cage play Nic Cage and why it’s funny. It falls flat after that because, frankly, who cares if Nic Cage “saves the day” in a high concept action-comedy? At that point, he could be anyone. He’s Johnny Depp in The Tourist. I thought the whole point was to try to get beyond the celebrity schtick. It would’ve been more interesting to explore why Nic Cage’s beard seems to have a different shape, color, and texture in every scene.
That being said, Unbearable Weight is strange and hilarious for at least an hour, even if it never quite gets to exploring why.
‘The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent’ hits theaters on April 22nd. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.