In his latest film, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, Nicolas Cage plays himself. This is not, it’s fair to say, much of a career departure. Arguably, Cage has been playing variations on the theme of Nic Cage for the best part of four decades. Part of the fun of a Nic Cage movie, particularly genre fare such as Face/Off or Mandy, is filling in the bingo card of Cage-ian performance tropes – the weird, lurching emphases on random words; the loping roll of a gait, like a hound puppy that hasn’t quite grown into the size of its paws. The volcanic bursts of SHOUTING.
It’s this aspect of his distinctive screen presence that has lately been harnessed into “Cage rage” memes, which quote the most extreme elements of a Cage performance and then magnify them to grotesque comic effect. Cage himself has gone on record expressing his disappointment with the “Cage rage” depiction of his acting approach, arguing, fairly perhaps, that it’s reductive, a denial of the degree of craft he brings to each role. With that in mind, and with his performance in last year’s Pig a reminder that Cage is capable of an extraordinary churning, internalised complexity, his decision to star in this film seems somewhat unexpected.
An action comedy that sees Cage recruited by US secret services to spy on a wealthy fan, while also finding himself collaborating with the suspect on a dialogue-driven, character-led screenplay, Unbearable Weight could be viewed as an admission of defeat to the memeification of Nic Cage. Or, perhaps, by confronting the Cage-ian cliches head on, by owning them, he can finally move past them.
Part of the film’s clutter of messages is, after all, the fact that only through separating himself from the voracious beast that is a movie star career can Cage find peace in his private life, with amicably divorced wife, Olivia (Sharon Horgan), and his exasperated 16-year-old daughter, Addy (Lily Mo Sheen). Most likely, though, given that the version of Cage that we first meet in this new film is an inflated buffoon who claims to be a proponent of a “nouveau shamanic” approach to acting, the movie appealed because it’s both a joke at the expense of the egos and excesses of Hollywood while also serving as a love letter to the same.
In playing a version of himself, Cage follows in the footsteps of John Malkovich, star of Spike Jonze’s Charlie Kaufman-scripted fantasy Being John Malkovich, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, who played himself as a down-on-his-luck action star (he’s even losing out on roles to Steven Seagal, the ultimate ignominy) in Mabrouk el Mechri’s JCVD. Of those two films, Unbearable Weight has more in common with JCVD, but this movie’s flighty tone of self-referential humour and affectionate industry jabs has a kinship with Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty, with which it shares a similar organised crime/movie industry overlap.
Nic Cage (the fictional one) is a mess. With a career bleeding out through a B-movie plughole and a tendency to make everything – his daughter’s birthday, the song he composed for her – about himself, he is hostage to a hectoring inner voice (played by a digitally de-aged Wild at Heart-era Nic Cage) that reminds him that he’s Nic f*****g Cage and should act accordingly. He’s initially resistant to the offer of a gig appearing at the birthday party of billionaire super fan Javi (Pedro Pascal, charm personified), but grudgingly takes the job. Debts are mounting and this trip to a luxury compound in Mallorca comes with a handsome pay cheque.
What he didn’t expect was to find a soulmate in Javi, who shares his love of the German expressionist silent horror film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and introduces him to the joys of Paddington 2. But the burgeoning bromance is interrupted by CIA agent Vivan (Tiffany Haddish), who informs him that Javi is the head of a cartel and is implicated in the kidnapping of a teenage girl.
Director and co-writer Tom Gormican, whose previous film was the poorly received bro-comedy That Awkward Moment, favours a combination of broad physical humour – Cage, reeling from an accidentally self-administered stunning agent and scaling the outside of Javi’s villa, is giddy fun – and cine-literate referential jokes, some of which land more successfully than others. The screenplay is so meta that at times it is practically consuming itself, an ouroboros of in-jokes. But there’s an affable appeal to the picture that disarms the more self-satisfied tendencies of the writing, and which stems from the chemistry between Cage and Pascal. Come for the industry satire, stay for the endearingly goofy buddy movie.