Nicolas Cage’s extraordinarily self-aware comeback movie, “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” isn’t quite meta enough to be titled “Nicolas Cage’s Extraordinarily Self-Aware Comeback Movie.” But it’s close. The grandly epic comedy is a celebration of its star and his remarkable 40-year career. It’s also a wild attempt to bring back a style of an A-list-driven, thriller action blockbuster that has mostly migrated to streaming services like Netflix in the past decade, in hopes of seeing Cage’s unique brand of magic work one more time.
If there’s any actor who can pull off being both in a mindless action film and an indie darling simultaneously, it’s Nicolas Cage.
It’s a bold move, trying to lure audiences back to theaters at the tail end of yet another Covid wave, and when mega-star-led films were already struggling to open big even before 2020. But “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” believes disguising itself as an indie-esque, character-driven Oscar-bait film will appeal to both adults and the teenage crowds. And to be fair, if there’s any actor who can pull off being both in a mindless action film and an indie darling simultaneously, it’s Nicolas Cage.
Cage’s career started when he was 15 via a small role in the hit teen flick “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” The nephew of Francis Ford Coppola, it was the only film (until this one) where he was credited under his given name, Nicolas Kim Coppola. By the time he appeared in “Valley Girl” the following year, he had changed his moniker to the now far more famous Nicolas (or Nic) Cage.
Following 1980s films like “The Cotton Club” and “Peggy Sue Got Married,” Cage officially hit the A-list playing the hapless H.I. McDunnough in the indie film “Raising Arizona” and the romantic lead in “Moonstruck,” opposite Cher. Memorable roles followed in “Wild at Heart” and “Red Rock West,” as well as box office blockbusters like “Leaving Las Vegas,” “The Rock,” “Con Air” and “Face/Off.”
The irony is that while Cage starred in one or two movies a year during the height of his career in the 90s, he averaged seven films every 12 months just before the Hollywood shutdown in 2020.
That prolific surge of work, even as Cage becomes better known for memes than acting, drives “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.” Cage plays Nick Cage, a fictionalized version of himself. He’s a self-hating nervous wreck who can’t seem to land a role; his wife is divorcing him, his teenage daughter can’t stand him and he’s swimming in debt following years of living beyond his means. In an effort to fix his financial problems, Cage attends the birthday party of billionaire Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal), a Cage super-fan with a script he wants to the actor to star in. Unfortunately, Cage learns upon arriving that Javi is also a suspected drug lord who may have kidnapped a teenage girl, and a CIA operative (Tiffany Haddish) convinces Cage to do some real-world spying. (Thank heavens Cage is used to doing his own stunts.)
These plot machinations are fun, but the real joy of the film is its 40 years of Nic Cage context.
These plot machinations are fun, but the real joy of the film is its 40 years of Nic Cage context. The movie opens with a pair of characters watching an extended clip from “Leaving Las Vegas.” Its early scenes feature Cage whisper-shouting some of his famous monologues and dropping his best movie lines in conversation. Meanwhile, other characters argue whether his 1990s fare is superior to his 2000s fare or his more recent work, like “The Croods.” Famous props from his films turn up in unexpected places, and sometimes expected ones. (The film’s Chekhov’s guns, for instance, are from “Face/Off.”)
Cage understands what audiences want — a self-deprecating comeback plea — even as he swears he never went anywhere. He rolls with the film as it switches from small-time introspective indie to deep family drama to a drugged-out comedy. Then the guns and cars roll out, and suddenly he flips to action-adventure Nic Cage without missing a beat. It’s almost like he’s winking at the camera: Get you an actor that can do it all!
But Cage doesn’t just play Nick Cage; he also plays his alter-ego (or perhaps his alter-id), Nicky, a too-smoothed, CGI de-aged version of himself from “Wild at Heart.” (Nicky is credited as Nicolas Kim Coppola.) Nicky and Nick argue regularly, with Nicky screaming that Nick should only take the mega-million blockbuster roles worthy of his pedigree, while Nick mutters that he’s just an actor who wants to enjoy the craft and be grateful for the work. It’s a performance that delivers a whole new collection of meme-able moments.
Cage’s bromance with Pascal’s character Javi is also central to the movie’s magic. It’s great to see Pascal in a role that shows his face; like Cage, he’s been on the blockbuster circuit as the titular (albeit helmeted) Mandalorian. Also, like Cage, he’s known for his over-the-top moments and the memes that spring from them — google “Pascal Game of Thrones” to get a taste. Pascal shows just enough vulnerability to make it easy to see the soft man underneath a hardened exterior, keeping audiences guessing if he will ultimately turn protagonist or antagonist.
It seems unlikely that Cage’s turn as Cage will truly be recognized by the awards shows, even if the marketing is already attempting to make that case. But as a way to both return to the megaplex and highlight his entire persona in one two-hour long sizzle reel, it’s a grand slam. It’s a rare movie star who can argue they’ve been an A-list hitmaker over the course of four decades, but the unbearable weight of his massive talent has never held Cage down.