See Nicolas Cage nail the Nouveau Shamanic acting technique in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent as Nick Cage, an enigmatic former star who plays Russian roulette with roles because it reminds him he’s alive (and he owes 600k to the hotel he’s been inhabiting throughout his divorce). Whether your favourite Age of Cage is his 90s action superstardom, his more meaningful outings from the likes of the Coens, Lynch and Kaufman, his recent renaissance care of SpectreVision or his long list of straight-to-DVD efforts (two of which achieved the rare honour of 0% ratings on Rotten Tomatoes), you’re sure to find something to love in this new film from a director whose CV is comparatively microscopic.
Cage plays a somewhat fictionalised version of himself as an actor in the twilight of his career, trying to land that one role that might propel him back to the big leagues of his former filmography. He meets with David Gordon Green (channelling Jon Favreau as himself in The Sopranos), who directed him in Joe and effectively kicked off the first hint at a Cage comeback in 2013. Nick is assured by David that he practically has the role of a wise-cracking Boston cop but his delivery is not convincing to this Coppola; Nick’s anxiety and desperation kick in and he self sabotages so hard that David ends up “going in a different direction”. When Nick’s agent Fink (Neil Patrick Harris) comes to him with an offer of a cool million to attend the birthday party of a wealthy fan, he really doesn’t have a choice but to accept.
The parallels between the lives of Nicolas Cage and Nick Cage are on full display here in ways that must’ve been quite personal to confront. We meet his daughter, Addy (played by the beautiful product of Kate Beckinsale and Michael Sheen) and soon-to-be ex-wife Olivia (Sharon Horgan), whose strained relationship with Nick is a cause of much frustration to everyone but Nick. During family therapy sessions, Nick can’t understand why his attempt to bond with his teenage daughter by forcing her to watch The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has not mended their broken strands, much less why his improvised birthday song, drunkenly performed on piano at her 16th birthday party, did not land the way he’d hoped. Cage has been married five times and sired three children (two boys, one still in the oven) from separate relationships in real life, so his relationships with Addy and Olivia are likely amalgamations of the problems inherent in his relationships with all of his children and former spouses. There’s something quite upsetting in watching this hyper passionate and always-on-the-go creative type fail to recognise his very obvious shortcomings when they’re being pointed out by his loved ones. He doesn’t mean to be neglectful and there’s no malice in his scattered thought processes, but it almost seems that, despite his desire to have it all, he’s really not made for the mundane.
Unbearable Weight works best as a character study of its protagonist’s problems with connection and it’s explored beautifully through the central relationship of the film. When Nick arrives at the island he meets Javi (Pedro Pascal), an expert in both olives and his entire filmography. Javi keeps some bad company and may or may not be involved with a Cartel-initiated hostage situation, but he’s also the most affable teddy bear there ever was and an absolute joy for Nick to be around. While the CIA has embroiled Nick in a plot to find the hostage at Javi’s house, he masquerades as a possible business partner in getting Javi’s script made into a film, and what starts out as pretend turns into a genuine partnership between two cinephile soulmates.
This may be the role that Nic Cage was born to play but equal credit should be given to Pedro Pascal, who rises to the occasion of sharing the stage with a force of power and perfectly complements his energy. While Cage has several performances of late that he is most proud of (Mandy, Color Out of Space and Pig among them), they have largely been one-man shows. In Unbearable Weight, it feels like he’s no longer up there alone. Nick and Javi click instantly and engage in the kinds of conversations usually reserved for the very best dates. A comparison of their favourite films turns into a reflection on 100 years of cinema and the impossibility of picking just one to cover each mood, each season, or each moon cycle. Watching two grown men drag out their casual drink into a late night swim and a sleepover movie night featuring the other film whose rating sat at 100% on RT for an extended period of time is the kind of wholesome masculinity I love to see.
With a screenplay from Kevin Etten, whose CV includes The Late Show with David Letterman and Workaholics, the comedy comes through in droves and it’s a lovely change for Cage (especially since it’s intentional). Like 2015’s Spy, a curated blend of laughs, strong chemistry and light action creates something likely to please most crowds but it is true fans of Cage who’ll get the most out of this film. References to the likes of Castor Troy and Cameron Poe abound in archival footage and poorly-made statues hidden in Javi’s secret Nick Obsession room, while discussions on the healing power of Guarding Tess open a dialogue about the sheer breadth of this man’s resume. And the more you dig, the more meta it gets.
Echoes of Cage’s duality as twin Kaufmans in Adaptation exist with the inclusion of Nicky, Nick’s inner voice and an iteration of himself that clings to an idea of stardom likely never to be reached again. Nicky represents the mania oft shown in Cage’s more operatic performances (think Vampire’s Kiss or perhaps Bad Lieutenant 2: Port of Call New Orleans) – the uncaged side evident in the promotional tour he did for Wild at Heart. In an out-of-body-and-space scene reminiscent of Van Damme’s very personal and moving monologue from JCVD, Nick and Nicky engage in a tête-à-tête about his true capabilities for work outside of acting. Cage’s insecurities come screaming through only to be cruelly confirmed by Nicky, so much a stage mum for “Nick Cage” that his Wild at Heart T-shirt has presumably never changed since 1990. We are our harshest critics but Nick needs to banish his to move on with both his career and his life, a task made easier since discovering a real life cheerleader in Javi.
Unbearable Weight explores Nicolas Cage’s “small contribution to mythmaking” with reverence and respect, while also acknowledging the more ridiculous aspects of his life. While he may be a legend, he’s also done a volume of shit over the past decade to rival Bruce Willis (and without the excuse of a neurological disorder). It’s humanising that someone born into Hollywood royalty could rack up the amount of debt, make as many bad decisions and be forced to take as many paycheck jobs as Nic Cage has – let’s hope he’s found his way with this one.
While it’s no Paddington 2, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a celebration of surely one of the most unique artists of our time. Excellent performances and chemistry balance out the silliness of what is ultimately a buddy comedy aware of its own pandering to the masses, while on a deeper level, it’s a piece that succeeds in catapulting its star back into a blockbuster that isn’t part of an ongoing saga or established IP. Whether you’re a fan of National Treasure, Moonstruck or the criminally misunderstood Drive Angry, this is a film that will reward your loyalty and wholly entertain you throughout its 1 hour, 45 minute runtime.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is in cinemas April 21.
7.5 “not the bees!” out of 10.