To stave off an audience laughing at them too hard for becoming a punchline, various stars have turned to self-satire to stem the tide. William Shatner and Jean-Claude Van Damme spring instantly to mind, and indeed, they experienced a career renaissance due to their willingness to acknowledge the issue. Now, Nicholas Cage has stepped into the arena with THE UNBEARABLE WEIGHT OF MASSIVE TALENT. In this film, he plays himself, a veteran actor struggling to be taken seriously, yet one who accepts a million-dollar payday to rub shoulders with the elite at a Spanish businessman’s estate. Once overseas, Cage falls headlong into a crazed adventure that could be straight out of, you guessed it, a typically gonzo Cage tentpole. It’s a funny concept, of course, but it ultimately fails to go as deep as it could. There’s laughing at yourself, but digging deeper into why you’ve squandered your talent so seems to be a bridge too far for the Oscar-winning actor.
That’s a shame too as much of what the script throws at Cage is brutally honest. In the film, his egomaniacal actor is chastised for being too self-centered, too hammy, too careless with money, and too broke. Cage is game for it all and endures the slings and arrows from the first frame to last. Still, he’s never really confronted on why can’t say no to shitty scripts. Additionally, he is lauded left and right in the film for his questionable action role choices. The picture seems to almost approve of his veering away from better career decisions like LEAVING LAS VEGAS and ADAPTATION. The film wants to eat its cake and have it too, satirizing some of Cage’s excesses while leaving the more serious questions by the wayside.
The selective satirizing starts once Cage gets over to Spain after losing out on a fictionalized film offer that would’ve stretched him as an actor. Depressed and out of money, as well as slammed for his immaturity by his fictional ex-wife and daughter (Sharon Horgan and Lily Sheen, respectively), Cage accepts a big check to appear at the mansion of superfan Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal). Easy money, and an ego boost too – – what could go wrong?
Plenty. As soon as Cage gets there, he’s contacted by CIA agents (Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barrinholtz in underwritten parts) who have been tracking Javi for months. They suspect his legitimate business may be little more than a front for a drug cartel he’s masterminding. It adds an edge of danger to the adoring doofus that is Javi, and it puts Cage in a difficult predicament.
As Cage stays through the weekend, genuinely bonding with Javi over the love of FACE/OFF, his favorite film of all time, the star is forced into spying on him. This leads to all kinds of action including sneaking about, navigating narrow escapes, and running breathlessly through schtick that plays like it’s right out of one of Cage’s NATIONAL TREASURE movies. Cage tweaks Cage hilariously, and Pascal is hilarious too.
Still, the plot could have cut deeper if it didn’t keep defending Cage’s resume. CON AIR and THE ROCK are not great films, and why bombs like THE WICKER MAN are mentioned is anybody’s guess, but Javi loves all that Cage’s done during his career. (Some of his better work, like RAISING ARIZONA and MOONSTRUCK, barely is acknowledged.) It’s funny that Javi is so blindly devoted to the action/adventure star that Cage became, but so much lauding of that part of his career tends to shave down the sharper corners of the satire.
The third act comes with problems too as it doesn’t so much lambast the excesses of Cage’s adventure films as turn into yet another one of them. The action is cut too quickly as well to gloss over the limits of the film’s small budget. (Are we supposed to laugh that Cage’s stunt double is clearly visible in much of it?) Writer/director Tom Gormican and fellow screenwriter Kevin Etten certainly bring the funny, but not enough of what they’ve put on the screen could be called truly inspired. The most imaginative thing they’ve come up with beyond its meta premise is the nifty idea of a younger Cage serving as ol’ Nick’s conscience, one who berates his older self for wanting to do better work. Cage’s funniest scenes here are with himself.
Arguably, the most ironic thing about THE UNBEARABLE WEIGHT OF MASSIVE TALENT is that it probably didn’t need to be done at all given that Cage has found the critical high ground once again. Over the last few years, he has done serious and superb work in films like MOM AND DAD, MANDY, and especially, last year’s PIG.
The fact is, Cage has always been a terrific actor; he’s just been very bad at showcasing that talent in proper vehicles. Here, he’s making sure everyone recognizes his (ahem) talent burden once again, and no matter, it’s a delight to see him playing comedy so well once again. That alone is enough to treasure.