The following review contains spoilers for, uh, the 1994 film Guarding Tess.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent has the most bite at the beginning, when it’s establishing the woes of a fictionalized Nicolas Cage. During a lunch meeting with a director (David Gordon Green, playing himself) to discuss a potential role, he tries to keep his cool. But his desperation leaks out. He launches into a painful public script reading, and neither Cage nor his mangled attempt at a Boston accent get the part. He’s anxious, he’s needy, and he’s broke after a recent divorce.
As conceived by writers Tom Gormican (who also directs) and Kevin Etten, the enthusiasm and commitment of Nicolas Cage are precisely what irritate the people who know him personally. His ex-wife (Sharon Hogan) is fed up with his constant need to be working, and his daughter (Lily Sheen) feels the same. It’s decently fertile ground for comedy, even before you factor in that Cage sometimes argues with an imaginary version of his younger self, who needles him about his complacency. Dubbed “Nicky,” this version of Cage is digitally de-aged and dressed in reference to one of Cage’s most infamous talk show appearances, which involves a combination of high kicks, shirtlessness, and money tossed into the crowd. Nicky is essentially the manifestation of the exaggerated Nicolas Cage public persona, the man as meme.
There’s a promising dynamic here — the out-of-context internet value of Cage’s performances is what kept him in the public eye, the anchor for a particularly low period of constant VOD work. Two years ago, I wrote about this period of Cage’s career, arguing that he came out the other end as essentially a brand, a reliable indicator of a film with a certain style and sensibility. Massive Talent marks the first Nicolas Cage vehicle in a decade to open in wide release, and it’s doing so with the hook of leveraging that brand as directly as possible, by having Cage play himself.
The trouble with brands, though, is that they have limitations. Brands must be managed. And for as irresistible of an idea as The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent appears to be on paper, those limitations hamstring an actor who built his career on being deliriously unconstrained.
The Family Man
In a nod to Cage’s well-publicized financial issues, the plot hinges on Cage owing money to the hotel where he camps out post-divorce. His agent (Neil Patrick Harris) floats a convenient opportunity: Cage can accept money in exchange for attending the party of a wealthy fan named Javi (Pedro Pascal) in Mallorca, Spain. Though Cage only does so out of desperation and initially views the paid appearance as beneath him, he unexpectedly hits things off with Javi, whose only flaw seems to be that he wants the star to read his screenplay. But the joy of this new friendship is cut short once CIA agents (Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz) inform Cage of Javi’s unsavory business dealings, with ties to drug cartels and kidnappings. At their behest, he goes undercover the same way he stars in the film: as himself.
And yet, irreverent though the film’s pitch may seem, it’s reluctant to portray Cage in a particularly negative light or in a particularly low place. The conception of his financial issues is rather tame, sidestepping any destructive behavior or absurd overspending. Most of his issues are related secondhand rather than explicitly seen, from the debts to a therapy session where he notes people complain about the frequency of his work, that he “could stand to say ‘no’ more often.” There’s no bitterness, and most of the arrogance is restrained. Beyond a couple of jabs about how he “used to be” a star, the film has the congratulatory quality of most celebrity cameos, lacking any specific targets even in jest.
In interviews Cage has been adamant about distancing himself from this fictionalized portrayal. There are a couple of in-film touches to indicate this; he doesn’t have a teenage daughter, and the spelling choice of “Nick Cage” over “Nic Cage” suggests a tiny bit of additional separation. (The role of Nicky is separately credited to Cage under his real name, Nicolas Kim Coppola.) But his fatherly transgressions hardly register on the scale of deadbeat movie parents; the worst thing he does is drunkenly sing at his daughter’s birthday party. His big flaw, an apparent need to mold her into a younger version of himself, feels unexplored beyond a few mentions of how he likes to watch old movies with her — in this regard, even the near-unwatchable Space Jam: A New Legacy goes farther in suggesting its real-life star is a bad fictional parent.
The self-consciousness is ultimately what defangs The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. He’s dodged it up to now, even in films like Willy’s Wonderland and Prisoners of the Ghostland, which sound calculated for maximum internet appeal. I have found chronicling this period of Cage’s career, where he half-embraces his public perception, to be oddly anticlimactic in that regard; portraying him as a man who has given up would make for a clean, punchy headline, but his performances still play like challenges he’s earnestly committing to.
In Massive Talent, he remains a charismatic and singular screen presence. And admittedly, his portrayal here is closer to home than actors tend to allow, more rooted in his personal struggles; the joke of Neil Patrick Harris as himself in Harold and Kumar, after all, is that he’s so far removed from his public image. But the film provides precious little room to dig into the intricacies of Cage’s public persona and his apparent shortcomings; he comes off more like a guy who’s going through a rough patch and taking it pretty well, all things considered. I don’t doubt Cage when he talks about the sheer challenge of playing himself, but this is one challenge where the results haven’t translated to the screen.
The buddy action elements are what come closest to working. What Cage is doing for the CIA goes against his instincts “as a thespian”; it would be one thing if Javi was the usual picture of an obsessive, too-adoring public, but beyond some initial anxiety about meeting his idol, Javi is totally earnest in his admiration. Pedro Pascal plays him like a human golden retriever, creating a genuine dilemma between how Cage is treated and what he thinks he knows about this man he just met.
Pascal and Cage share a warm chemistry that more or less papers over how the transactional nature of their relationship seems to evaporate altogether. Presumably, Cage’s dilemma is meant to echo not just various “undercover” movies but the ultimate undercover movie in Cage’s own Face/Off, though Massive Talent is surprising restrained about its referencing and its callbacks. When Cage jumps to the bottom of a pool, it’s a relatively fitting moment as much as it is a callback, and no one says they thought of Leaving Las Vegas when they pull him out of the water. Instead of stopping to point out every reference, these moments are used to tie the larger plot together. The film does not feel like a goof, opting for a plausible, character-driven reality than blatant farce.
Wild at Heart
But it’s hard not to wonder if the film would have gone over better as farce, because it comes up so short in terms of actual character work. The glossed-over elements only pile higher as it goes on, like a love interest for Javi and a set of prosthetics that Cage wears as a disguise. Even the Nicky character feels like a footnote, disappearing halfway through the film. As a whole, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is more or less acceptable and watchable and competent, but none of those words describe the best Nicolas Cage movies. The embrace of action-comedy cliché here feels dreadfully routine, and while the characters comment on that fact in similar meta fashion to Adaptation, the comparison does the movie no favors. Instead, it highlights how much weirder this movie should probably be and how much it flattens one of the more adventurous careers in American film.
In his recent book Age of Cage: Four Decades of Hollywood Through One Singular Career, Keith Phipps outlines a period where Cage briefly took over the sort of affable nice-guy roles that were, at the time, expected of Tom Hanks. He pulled it off, too — Phipps writes that Cage’s characters “practically glow with virtue, each a little brighter than the one before.” But that sort of variety scarcely appears here beyond a few stray references, like how Javi recounts an emotional viewing of Guarding Tess, a comedy about a straight-laced Secret Service agent (Cage) protecting a cantankerous former First Lady (Shirley MacLaine). The reference is meant to be relatively obscure and low-key, a contrast to a film that opens with some clips of the preposterously awesome Con Air. It’s funny because it’s so very nonessential, as nobody’s favorite Cage movie.
But I had a better time discovering Guarding Tess in preparation for this review than I did in the theater for Massive Talent. I cackled at the truly bizarre turn in this unassuming, almost Hallmark-y movie that, in the home stretch, puts the First Lady in danger and leads to a dramatic scene where Cage tortures a hospitalized man for information by shooting off his toe. And it works! He does it in front of an FBI agent, and he suffers no consequences whatsoever because they rescue the First Lady from where she’s been buried alive and she puts in a good word.
This is what’s missing from the The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. There’s none of the discovery that makes it so interesting to venture into the far corners of Cage’s formidable filmography. When you do that, you find films that you don’t remotely expect to like but somehow do; you’re surprised by the wild swings buried deep in films that seem terrible, that are terrible. The experience of the Nicolas Cage filmography is to come away with confounding appreciations, to be flabbergasted by things like his outrageous cameo in Never on Tuesday.
And as a commentary on Cage’s career, I found more dramatic resonance in a film like Mandy or Pig, where grizzled veterans emerge from exile and don’t find the sort of world they expected. I left the theater skeptical of Massive Talent‘s very selling point. What would the film be like if Cage had been able to play a character who merely resembles him, who allows him to hide behind a more obvious separation of fact and fiction? Maybe then, he’d have shown us something more.