Director: Tom Gormican
Writer: Tom Gormican, Kevin Etten
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Pedro Pascal, Sharon Horgan, Ike Barinholtz, Alessandra Mastronardi, Jacob Scipio, Lily Sheen, with Neil Patrick Harris, and Tiffany Haddish
Cinematographer: Nigel Bluck
Editor: Melissa Bretherton
Is Nicolas Cage a good actor? In season 5 of the TV show Community, the enormity of this question and the volume of cinematic output required to sift through in search of the answer push Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) over into madness. It's easy to see why — Cage is a man of many contradictions. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as a troubled alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas (1995) and has worked with auteurs including Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott and the Coen brothers. At the same time, his signature brand of over-the-top acting, with his eyes bulging out, mouth agape in rage, has been memeified into pop culture consciousness, popularising the term 'Cage Rage'. Critics have simultaneously accused him of 'overacting' and lamented his status as an 'underrated' performer. He starred in 29 straight-to-VOD films in the last decade to pay off his debts but also calls that resume blip "some of the best work of his life". Eight years since that episode of Community aired, popular consensus around Cage's acting abilities seems to have solidified — 'good' and 'bad' are reductive terms when it comes to evaluating someone whose onscreen presence has remained one of thrilling unpredictability for the past 40 years.
The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent, Tom Gormican's smart meta-comedy in which Cage plays a washed-up, debt-ridden version of himself, balances its satirical take on the Hollywood machine with an indulgent affection for the actor's craft, allowing him to run full tilt towards his most heightened dramatic impulses. Barely five minutes in, he gets to deliver an impassioned action-hero monologue in a Boston accent. Later in the movie, in a literal depiction of the inherent narcissism of actors, he kisses an imagined younger version of himself who confirms, "Nicky smooches good." It's a film packed with increasingly absurd scenarios, each brimming over with unhinged glee.
When the actor accepts an offer of $1 million to appear at the birthday party of billionaire fan Javi Gutierrez (an endearing Pedro Pascal) in Mallorca, he's intercepted by CIA agents (Ike Barinholtz and Tiffany Haddish) who suspect Javi of being a cartel leader. Cage's reluctant acceptance of his role as a double agent is complicated by his genuine affection for Javi as the two gradually embark on a charming bromance and even begin working on a script together. As the movie progresses, the layers of Cage's performance deepen. He's an actor playing a version of himself in a movie, while acting as a spy for the CIA, and simultaneously pretending to be a good friend.
Is all of life just one big performance piece? Gormican and co-writer Kevin Etten come tantalisingly close to the answer during a scene in which Cage, having just been turned down for a role he was chasing, must put on a brave face and be present for his daughter (Lily Mo Sheen)'s birthday, but that peters out quickly as the film itself keeps slipping between an immersive experience and a hyper-awareness of its status as a movie. There are extended scenes of characters play-acting as other people. The background score makes its presence insistently felt during more dramatic scenes. Some of the film's best moments are outright parodies of other genres.
Throughout, Gormican sprinkles in thoughts on the nature of public image, the career pivots that fading stars must make, the single-minded obsessions that drive actors and the dismal current state of filmmaking. His observations might be couched in hyperbolic terms to create the effect of satire, but there's an undercurrent of sincerity to the cheeky mocking. A scene in which Javi talks about bonding with his dying father over Cage starrer Guarding Tess (1994) is played for laughs, but there's no mistaking how that moment acknowledges the transformative power of cinema.
The film is also littered with other references to Cage's filmography. A shot of him drinking a beer underwater visually references a similar one in Leaving Las Vegas. During a tense confrontation, a mask he's wearing is dramatically peeled off in an obvious nod to Face/Off (1997). As Cage and Javi begin drawing from real life to write their screenplay, the meta conceit of a movie that follows two men attempting to write that very movie mirrors Adaptation (2002). But The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent expands its scope beyond Cage's work, becoming a joyous ode to the art of moviemaking itself. It crams a lot into its runtime but there isn't a single minute that isn't exuberant in its audacity. Cage flexes every acting muscle he has but is also offered moments of quiet vulnerability.
Halfway through, the film segues from an insightful meta commentary to the sun-soaked spectacle of a summer blockbuster. There's a kidnapping plot, a chase sequence and a major shootout, the very things Cage and Javi fear will be added to their tender, low-stakes script once it's put through the Hollywood studio wringer. With this, The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent becomes a rich tapestry that stitches together the disparate halves of Cage's onscreen persona with a uniformly electrifying performance from the actor. The transition between both halves of the film is abrupt and erratic, which makes sense given that it's keeping pace with an actor who's kept audiences guessing for decades. In crafting a movie that's as unpredictable and unrestrained as its leading man, Gormican makes the film one that's worthy of his actor's multifaceted performances; a loving, and fitting tribute to his range.
The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent is playing in theatres now.