Few actors have had the type of roller coaster career that Nicolas Cage has had. His early success in the 1980s led to his Oscar-winning role in Leaving Las Vegas and a string of high-profile action movies in the late ‘90s. But his 21st century roles have been very up-and-down, to the point that it’s difficult to tell whether he’s still one of the biggest stars in the world or a has-been forced to take whatever work he can get.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent uses all of the varied perceptions of Cage in a highly effective comedy. Cage stars as a version of himself who has reached a professional nadir and is somewhat of a joke to both his ex-wife Olivia (Sharon Horgan) and daughter Addy (Lily Mo Sheen). In desperation, he accepts an offer of $1 million to appear at the birthday party of Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal), a wealthy Spaniard.
Once there, however, Cage is approached by Vivan (Tiffany Haddish) and Martin (Ike Barinholtz), two CIA agents who are trying to take down Javi and his family, who lead a drug cartel. The agents convince Cage to be a type of double agent, pretending to be a friend to Javi, who has moviemaking ambitions, while also gathering intelligence, including the whereabouts of the daughter of a prominent Spanish politician who’s been kidnapped.
Directed by Tom Gormican and written by Gormican and Kevin Etten, the film is a laughfest that aims to be both a send-up and homage to Cage’s filmography. The film touches on everything from Con Air to Moonstruck to Guarding Tess to Face/Off to The Wicker Man, all of it done with love tinged with winking nods at his patented over-the-top acting style. Cage has become such an iconic actor over the past 40 years that he’s one of the few that would fit a role such as this so well.
One of the funniest aspects of the film is how self-referential it becomes. As part of his double agent “plan,” Cage tells Javy that he wants to work on a new screenplay with him. From that point on, the brainstorms the characters come up with for their fake movie wind up being the movie the actors are starring in. The filmmakers walk a fine line with this choice, and it pays off in the end.
The only aspect of the film that doesn’t quite work is the inclusion of “Nicky Cage,” a much younger version of Cage that appears next to him in especially stressful situations. The character, who’s there to remind Cage what a great person he is, works fantastically on his first appearance, but with diminishing returns in haphazard appearances throughout the rest of the film. The weirdness of Cage interacting with something only he can see should have either been a much bigger part or scrapped completely; the half-hearted approach is not enough to sell the character.
Some would argue that Nicolas Cage playing himself doesn’t require much acting, but that line of thinking doesn’t understand Cage’s unique genius. He’s not just playing a character; he is the character, and every choice he makes just reinforces the persona he’s built up throughout his career.
Pascal goes a bit against type with his character, who is an unabashed superfan of Cage, and he scores a number of great comedic moments. Neil Patrick Harris has a few fun scenes as Cage’s smarmy but supportive agent. Haddish and Barinholtz do well, although their CIA subplot could have been bolstered a bit more.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a title that’s as overdone as the acting of Cage himself, which makes it that much more memorable. Whether you love him, hate him, or are amused by his eccentricity, there’s no actor like him and this movie proves why.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent opens in theaters on April 22.