“The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” opens with perhaps one of the silliest scenes from Nicolas Cage’s long and varied filmography: the ending of the 1997 action movie “Con Air,” in which Cage’s Army vet and ex-con who just saved the day reunites with his wife and the daughter he’s never met, Trisha Yearwood’s “How Do I Live,” a ballad that is entirely incongruous to the tone of the rest of the movie, blaring in the background. Like most movies starring Cage, you’ll get a different response to this moment from just about anyone who watches it. Some people think it’s purposely cheesy. Some people say it’s just straight up bad. And still others believe it’s fantastic. When the film cuts to Maria (Katrin Vankova), the young woman watching “Con Air” within the movie, her awed reaction is that Nicolas Cage is “so cool.”
That’s the response that everyone involved in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” appears to share about Cage, with the film riffing on the actor’s wild screen persona that alternately alienates and attracts audiences while simultaneously serving as a loving tribute to a person who is undeniably one of the greatest and most unique actors working today. Cage plays a fictionalized version of himself in the film, which is directed and written by Tom Gormican (co-written by Kevin Etten). The real-life Cage seems to be everywhere nowadays, but in this universe, he’s washed up, living in Hollywood’s Sunset Tower Hotel away from his estranged wife Olivia (Sharon Horgan) and teenage daughter Addy (Lily Sheen) and struggling to get cast in another movie. He decides to retire from acting, when his agent offers him an intriguing proposition: to attend the birthday party of Nicolas Cage super fan Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal), a billionaire who will play him $1 million to travel to Majorca and meet with him (and maybe also read his screenplay he wants Cage to star in). Cage reluctantly does, but ends up striking up an unlikely friendship with Javi through their creative pursuits, mutual cinematic interests, and a shared LSD trip.
The deep cut Cage references come fast and furious, with the appearance early on of a younger, wilder Cage (nicknamed “Nicky”) as an apparition who appears to Cage, a haunting reminder of his former success and current perceived inadequacy. This vision, also played by Cage (who is credited in the role by his birth name, Nicolas Kim Coppola), appears in the very specific guise of Cage when he appeared on the talk show “Wogan” in 1990 to promote the David Lynch film “Wild at Heart,” and during which he did somersaults on stage and tossed cash out to the audience. Later on in the film, Cage name-drops “nouveau shamantic,” his self-proclaimed method of acting inspired by the parallels he sees between performers and ancient shamans. Naturally, there are references made to many of Cage’s movies as well, but “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” also allows him to display his range as an actor seen across all those different films. He gets to be loud and crazy. He gets to do action scenes, from hand-to-hand combat to car chases. He gets to be funny, and crafts a great buddy comedy duo with Pascal (who also gets to show off his comedic chops and more than holds his own against Cage’s antics). But most importantly, he gets to imbue his performance, however close it is or isn’t to the real him, with deeply felt emotions ranging from regret to inadequacy to love, crafting a real character that has layers beneath the showiness.
When “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is just following Cage around, arguing with Nicky, struggling with his career and family, paling around with Javi, and dropping numerous movie references. Cage practically vibrates with enthusiasm when discussing the German expressionist silent horror classic “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” much has already been made online of a scene in which Javi exposes Cage to the joys of “Paddington 2,” and the first line of dialogue out of Cage’s mouth in the movie is, “Obviously, you’ve seen Mankiewicz’s ‘House of Strangers,’” which I personally got a kick out of. But the rest of the movie creaks under the bland espionage plot that is used to help Cage get his confidence back, and reconcile with his family. Maria—the young woman from the movie’s opening scene—is abducted, and CIA agents Vivian (Tiffany Haddish) and Martin (Ike Barinholtz) believe Javi—who apparently amassed his fortune through arms dealing—is behind it. Since Cage has access to Javi’s compound that they don’t, the agents enlist his help in finding Maria—and potentially eliminating his new friend. Haddish and Barinholtz aren’t given much of substance to do, and while Cage and Pascal liven up the generic proceedings with their high-energy performances, it’s hard to escape the feeling that that plot is only present to give the movie’s more fun tangential sequences something to lean on.
“The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” may not be as unhinged and surreal overall as it could have been, nor does it skewer the movie business particularly sharply, but it’s still fun, and still a delightful and loving tribute to Cage. Thanks to his acclaimed work in last year’s “Pig” (my favorite film of 2021) and a restrained performance that played against audience expectations and seemed to take a lot of viewers off guard, many people have been reevaluating Cage’s filmography, screen persona, and acting style in recent months. That’s great, but for those fans who have always stood by Cage for better and for worse, through quirky indies to big budget blockbusters to family favorites to drama to horror and more, this movie serves as the perfect cap to the age of Cage.
“The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 107 minutes. Rated R.