It obviously seemed like a great idea: make a Nicolas Cage movie about Nicolas Cage, simultaneously glorifying and satirizing Cage’s inimitable (but very imitable) Cage-ness – essentially, having your Cage rum cake and eating it too, like a slop hog. The irony would be so thick on the ground you’d need snake boots. Even the title, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, winks tears of irony in a Dave Eggers-ish, Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius kind of way.
Just leaning into everything Cage is a gambit that has its own ironic payload, now that Cage isn’t the mega movie star he was in the ’90s and early aughts but rather the desperate gun for hire in lower-budget straight-to-stream flicks, averaging more than three films a year for the past decade. This is not a film that could’ve been made in 1998 – it requires Cage’s career slide as context. Ironically, he seems to be more beloved now, if by a relatively smaller, hipster-y audience who collect favorite Cage moments like vintage LPs and who will likely hoover up director Tom Gormican’s farce with edibles-fueled gusto.
I can’t blame them – from the very first scene (in which Cage sells himself psychotically hard to director David Gordon Green, playing himself), the film launches into the barely fictionalized Cage’s desperation and beleaguered narcissism with unfettered zeal. Cage himself is a co-auteur here, if not improving and adding personal details to a very Cage-centric screenplay (written by Gormican and Kevin Etten), then taking up every invitation offered to caricature himself as being more or less, in reality, the hyperbolic exploding man he often is in his movies. Of which this is one, of course.
In this Cage’s world, the debt-plagued ex-star and ex-husband fails to get the role in Green’s film and is forced to take a humiliating job instead – $1 million to appear at a billionaire’s birthday party. Naturally, the rich Spaniard in question (a satisfyingly earnest and deadpan Pedro Pascal) is an arms-dealing mobster, and because this is a Nicolas Cage movie, or a parody of the kind of movie he used to make, or both, the CIA enlists Cage to spy for them and to save a kidnapped daughter of a Catalan politician. He is an irresponsible egomaniac, after all.
Still, most of the plot is consumed with Cage’s bonding with Pascal’s guileless superfan, who harbors a creepy Cage shrine in his villa, and with whom Cage is persuaded to write a script – a “character-driven adult drama.” They even drop acid, hilariously, forgetting the narrative altogether, and before you can say “Charlie Kaufman,” they decide that their new film should be about themselves.
Everything is inside baseball, and many jokes land, as when CIA agent Tiffany Haddish (that’s not the funny part), acts like a fan when Cage appears and shrieks that she’d just “watched The Croods 2 with my nephew!” Cut to Cage. But there’s also something smug and noxious about Gormican’s film – its head is too far up its own Hollywood ass. Mockery is wall to wall, but of what? Of Cage’s image and pretensions and proclivity for barn-burning uproar, or of the bullshittiness of Hollywood movies, including this one? Are fans being roasted for their Cage love? Is Cage admitting he’s a narcissistic ham, or is he acknowledging, with maybe a helping of rage and disgust, that that’s only how we see him? Is he, at least, admitting that Being Cage is, after all, just a schtick? Why would that be funny?
Around Cage swarms prototypically awful dialogue, cliched characters, stupid car chases, idiotic gunplay – some played straight, some obviously ridiculous, all of it acceptable only to those who fondly remember Jerry Bruckheimer movies. The suggestion of Kaufman is key – Adaptation is one Cage project the new movie never mentions, despite the fact that it’s his best film by a fat margin, and that it’s also a film about its own making (or unmaking). But it’s a high bar Gormican can’t hope to reach, and Kaufman’s sorcerous way of tincturing his ironic meta-ness with poetry, melancholy, and genuine mystery is what had always made his work far richer than the gotcha concepts they’re sometimes boiled down to.
Smirking Hollywood movies about Hollywood are always depressing, and somewhere in Unbearable Weight I thought of the recent Oscar ceremony’s weird dislocations – not just Will Smith, but the obituary dance number, among other stone-cold foolishness. No wonder most human beings have ceased taking these bubble-lifers seriously, even when they deliberately make fried hash out of their own reputations. Do you laugh with Nick Cage, or at him? Unbearable Weight, when you think about it, is as pathetic as it is momentarily amusing, right down to its heartwarming Reagan-era ending.
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