‘Willy’s Wonderland’ Review: Cagesploitation 202X

Nicolas Cage, he of the famously idiosyncratic line reading and the overall weirdo performance choice, has precisely zero dialogue in Willy’s Wonderland. His character also has no name, referred to only as “the Janitor” for the way he has been cajoled into cleaning the decrepit Chuck E. Cheese knock-off that gives the film its title. Under the guise of working off his car repair debt in a nowhere town, he is the prospective human sacrifice for the hellish animatronics that lurk within. And although he has only one night to do the job, the similarities to indie horror game sensation Five Nights at Freddy’s practically go without saying. 

The difference — or, at least, what I assume is the difference given that I have never gone very deep into that series — is that Cage’s Janitor is an unflappable, nigh-unstoppable action hero. In fight scenes that tend to feature eruptions of oil and wire and other animatronic insides, he disposes of his attackers as though it’s just another part of the job: mop the floors, scrub the walls, and bag the dismembered body parts of murderous animatronics by the door. He does grunt and shout a little during the fights because a truly silent performance from Nicolas Cage is, one assumes, a pretty big ask. But even when a gang of expendable teens shows up, the guy scarcely opens his mouth except to guzzle soda during his inexplicably rigid commitment to hitting the break room whenever his watch goes off.

One Night at Nicky’s

A lot of Cage-sploitation movies conspicuously send our favorite Coppola offscreen on some errand and shift the weight, for varying amounts of time, to actors who are either less expensive or less busy (perhaps both). He’s the main draw yet he’s often not the main character, functioning as the prominent figure of a larger ensemble in films like Kill Chain, Running with the Devil, and even Color Out of Space, where he disappears for a good stretch of time on a hospital run. Willy’s Wonderland is no different in this regard, intertwining Cage’s janitorial duties with the local teens who, under the leadership of Liv (Emily Tosta), hope to stop the madness. It’s through them that we get most of the context, of how Willy’s Wonderland was run by a gang of serial killers who transferred their souls to the animatronics via satanic ritual. When the townsfolk faced violent opposition to just bulldozing the place, they brokered a horrible sort of peace by agreeing to sacrifice travelers unfortunate enough to be passing through. (Why the kids, who are old enough to be played by twentysomethings that don’t look weird doing the requisite bad-idea sex scene, waited so damn long to take action is unclear.)

Certainly it’s tempting to view Willy’s Wonderland as the unfortunate next stage of the Cagesploitation film. Has the emergence of Nicolas Cage as a brand not in spite of his bad movies but because of them reached its logical conclusion, where he has done the math and now does the bare minimum to get his face on the poster and his name above the title without being accused of false advertising?

But Willy’s Wonderland never totally comes off that way. Even though he’s not saying anything, he is in a decent chunk of the film especially when compared to the strange case of last year’s Jiu Jitsu. In that movie, his (otherwise hilarious) hermit character is awkwardly spliced into scenes that never quite sell the presence of the other actors that the film keeps cutting to. There are more convincing scenes in The Sixth Sense where ghost Bruce Willis seems to interact with people than there are scenes in Jiu Jitsu where Cage is ever plausibly in the immediate vicinity of Frank Grillo and Tony Jaa.

Instead, Willy’s Wonderland is, I think, supposed to be a legitimate challenge, stripping Cage of his most frequent tools in order to force a different kind of performance. He has cited the influence of German expressionist silent films on his acting even as long ago as 1987’s Moonstruck, and a totally nonspeaking character allows him to tap more directly into that recurring well of inspiration.

Willy's Wonderland

Walking in a Willy Wonderland

The problem is that Willy’s Wonderland isn’t much of a challenge. Cage is capable of a stoic performance — it’s basically what he did in 2018’s Mandy, and he did hulking and intimidating in 1995’s Kiss of Death as Little Junior Brown, who bench-presses strippers for fun and hurls a guy clear out of a truck in one particularly painful-looking stunt. But all that this film asks of Cage is to do cleaning montages and then fight in some choppy action scenes. There’s not much space to build a distinct character beyond the fact that he really likes drinking soda and playing pinball in his spare time.

In a better movie, the concept would pick up some of the slack. But the fight scenes go off without a hitch, without any tangible spark of invention. Surely between the whole Five Nights at Freddy’s media empire, a weird Banana Splits knock-off, that one episode of Dexter’s Laboratory, and various other takes on the house that Charles Entertainment Cheese built, there’s some inspiration to be had here. But Willy’s Wonderland never finds it, coming across more like a trailer in search of a movie. Legacy-wise, the film seems destined to be the only piece of entertainment where watching a guy play pinball is more fun than seeing him curb stomp an animatronic gorilla into a urinal.

In retrospect, perhaps the smoothness of the “Nic Cage vs. evil animatronics” concept is a red flag, a little too perfect for the sort of cult film that Willy’s Wonderland so plainly yearns to be. It’s already tough to reverse-engineer a good cult movie when so many of the best ones happen by accident — their weirdest, most specific details resonate with a smaller group explicitly because they risk (and often succeed at) alienating a larger one. They’re sincere, and sincerity carries with it a potential failure that’s so much more daring than trying too hard to please the crowd and/or convey an ironic remove by constantly turning to wink and nod. The ones that are in on the joke commit heavily to their bit, like how every conceivable angle of evil alien clowns gets explored in Killer Klowns from Outer Space. Something like the recent PG: Psycho Goreman comes close to crashing yet manages to pull back, taking its convoluted sci-fi universe and its meanest, most unpleasant aspects with just the right amount of seriousness to (mostly) avoid self-aware mugging.

Similarly, a Nicolas Cage movie works because of his commitment, because you can see him reaching for some earnest purpose rather than simply flying off the handle because it’s what we expect of him. The worst thing he could do is totally lean in. Willy’s Wonderland is a bad movie because it seems designed to do exactly that, deploying Cage with a knowing, self-conscious strangeness that isn’t actually very strange at all. That he’s a producer on the film is concerning. Yet Cage’s performance here will probably be deeply unsatisfying for its wordlessness, and that risk of dissatisfaction just barely rescues the film from being a trite, groan-inducing play to what someone out there believes are our exact expectations, a hacky “I love bacon” mug of a movie. Willy’s Wonderland comes right up to the edge, and like anything that’s overly affected, it lacks the ideas or the insight to do anything more than skim the surface.

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Steven Nguyen Scaife

Steven Nguyen Scaife has written about pop culture for Slant Magazine, Polygon, Buzzfeed, Rock Paper Shotgun, and more.

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