The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

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Nicolas Cage in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.
Nicolas Cage in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.
Photo: Empire Entertainment
Film: The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

Where to watch: Sunday, 2 April at 20:05 on M-Net (DStv 101)

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Pedro Pascal, Tiffany Haddish, Ike Barinholtz

Our rating: 4/5 Stars

Once one of Hollywood's biggest A-listers, actor Nicolas Cage (Nicolas Cage) is now divorced, swimming in debt, and has burned through virtually all the goodwill he once commanded as both the world's biggest action star and an award-winning "serious" actor. Nick has had enough and decides to quit acting once and for all. Before he does that, though, to beat back some of his debt, he accepts a job to attend the birthday of a Spanish billionaire named Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal) for one million dollars. Things don't go quite as planned, however, as Nick is recruited by a pair of CIA agents (Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz) for his greatest role yet: to spy on Javi, who is actually the head of a huge arms cartel and whom they suspect of kidnapping the daughter of the president of Caledonia. Not based on a true story.

There's an episode of the beloved cult comedy series, Community, where high-functioning autistic and mega pop-culture nerd Abed tries to work out whether Nicolas Cage is an actor or not and – spoiler - ends up having a nervous breakdown and going full "Nick Cage, Baby!" in the process. The answer, as Abed learns and most of us already know, is that terms like "good" or "bad" have no place in any discussion about Nicolas Cage. Sure, he's done objectively excellent work (Leaving Las Vegas) and something like 70% of his oeuvre is unmitigated trash (sometimes in a good way, sometimes not), but the only real way to judge Cage as an actor and movie star is entirely against himself. Nicolas Cage is always and will always be nothing more and certainly nothing less than Nicolas Cage.

At the same time, it's hard to deny that Cage has hit something of a rut in his career. And a bad one at that. He has never worked harder and released more movies than in the past decade, but the only ones that most people would have heard of are animated films that, admittedly, make excellent use of his talents as a voice actor. The rest are G-grade, straight-to-video dreck (they're so bad, they still go to video... probably) – with the odd interesting-but-little-seen indie gem, like Pig or Mandy, thrown in for good measure.

This coming from the guy who headed the biggest and best action movies of the '90s; commanded real respect for his work in the likes of David Lynch's Wild at Heart, Ridley Scott's Matchstick Men, and the Coen Brothers' Raising Arizona; and rightly earned an Academy Award for Mike Figgis' Leaving Las Vegas. He did crap back then, too, to be sure, but his recent work has joined those of other major '90s and early 2000s stars like John Cusack and Bruce Willis at the very bottom of the barrel.    

Yes, the recent tragic revelations about Willis' health have explained his bizarre career trajectory of the past few years, and Cusack seems to be more interested in activism than acting these days, but no one has been able to figure out what the hell went wrong with the career of Nicolas freakin' Cage. He's still well-known, he's still well-loved, and he, apparently, commits himself as much to, I don't know, Southern Fury as he did Con Air or Adaptation. So why, oh why does the top half of his IMDb discography look like the work of, let's say, Steven Segal (sorrynotsorry), and the bottom half looks like one of the greatest resumes in Hollywood history?    

Honestly, I still don't know. What I do know, though, is that in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, we finally have, for the first time since Kick Ass in 2010, a live-action Nicolas Cage movie that is both a real crowd-pleaser and a deserved hit with the critics. And it so easily could have been neither.

If the idea of Nicolas Cage playing a somewhat fictional version of himself who becomes a hero in a "real-life" CIA mission sets off alarm signals in your head, don't worry, you're not alone. On paper, the Massive Weight of Unbearable Talent sounds absurdly self-indulgent even with its obviously ironic and self-deprecating title. Especially because of Cage's track record of late and especially because the film was co-written and directed by Tom Gormican, whose own track record is even worse with the promising but mediocre supernatural comedy series, Ghosted, as the clear highlight in a career that otherwise only includes the truly risible That Awkward Moment and a production credit on one of the most jaw-droppingly wrong-headed movies of all time, Movie 43. His co-writer and frequent collaborator, Kevin Etton, fares significantly better with credits on Scrubs and Workaholics, but not enough to make any of this exactly promising.

And yet, The Massive Weight of Unbearable Talent is a total blast, pretty much from start to finish. Despite being marketed primarily to the nouveau market in this country, Gormican and Etton have crafted something that may be extremely "meta", maybe even a bit "inside baseball", but is super mainstream and accessible while also being a killer showcase for its star, who in just 103 minutes reminds us just why his absence from the big league in recent years has been such a loss for cinema.

In terms of films built around real-life actors, this isn't as gleefully silly as something like Schwarzenegger's somehow still criminally underrated Last Action Hero or as inventive as Being John Malkovich, but it is both wildly entertaining and far smarter and more deftly handled than its largely breezy mix of buddy comedy shenanigans, meta in-jokes, and daft action beats might first suggest.

It is, from top to bottom, a celebration of the life, work, and persona of Nicolas Cage, starring Nicolas Cage and produced by Nicolas Cage, but it never ever feels smug, self-aggrandising or desperate in the way that it really probably should have. I mean, yeah, it's incredibly self-indulgent – how could it not be? - but even then, only in a way that is endearing. It is, however, really hard to imagine this working with anyone but Nick Cage.

Working with a rock-solid supporting cast – most notably a terrific Pedro Pascal, who quickly proves to be one of his best screen partners ever, as the film is never more successful than when it focuses on their characters' budding bromance – Cage innately understands that old maxim that vanity is the enemy of comedy, and however much the film is a loving tribute to the man and his career, he himself is more than willing to take the piss out of himself at every possible turn.

"Nicolas Cage" might just be a character in the film, but however exaggerated a caricature he may be of the real man playing him, he is clearly close enough to the real deal that when Cage pokes fun at his trademark OTT performances, awful choice in films for the past decade, and even less impressive personal life, it all comes with a real ring of truth to it. It's funny, but it's also honest and melancholy but never pitiful. I came into the film a Nick Cage fan; I left it as a Nick Cage super-fan.

There's real vulnerability and introspection to his performance here, but what's such a joy is to see all the different sides of Nicolas Cage, the screen legend, come together in a single film. We get dramatic Nick Cage, sure, but we also get Cage in all his other forms: goofy screwball comedy star, romantic lead, magnetic action hero. We get subtle Nick Cage, but we also get totally mad Nick Cage (mostly in the form of "Nicky", his imaginary alter-ego that embodies all of his biggest excesses as an actor), broadly comic Nick Cage, and charmingly self-deprecating Nick Cage.

Now, if the direction, cinematography, basic plot and action choreography are never much more than serviceable, they never get in the way of everything that works brilliantly about the film: not the performances, not the really impressive character work, not the deceptively sharp script, and certainly not the on-point and very effective comic beats that make the Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent not just a stunning tribute to one of the greatest movie stars of all time, but a mainstream Hollywood comedy that amuses from beginning to end.

And these days, that is certainly not something to be taken lightly.


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