Every year for the past several years, the movies are over and the movies are back. Movies are dead, long live the movies. At the precipice of another death and on the brink of another life, movies now ask: What if Nicolas Cage played himself?
This is the plot of Cage’s new feature, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, an endlessly mis-typable string of words. Cage plays himself, Nicolas Cage, or rather, Cage plays a version of himself, Nicolas Cage, a somewhat recently divorced actor with a teenage daughter who is past his prime and no longer booking roles. Cage also plays a version of himself, de-aged and smooth and alien, from around his Wild at Heart era known as “Nicky,” who is an ideation of pure ego. Cage and Nicky often converse when the former is alone, musing on the past and despairing over the future. Out of desperation for money and a lack of feasible options, Cage agrees to go to Mallorca and appear at the birthday party of a very wealthy man named Javi (Pedro Pascal). But Javi is connected to the cartels in Europe, and the CIA wants to get involved, and Cage, for the life of himself, just doesn’t know what to do next in his career. The film is a comedy and an action movie, as well as a metafictional commentary on comedies and action movies and “Nicolas Cage” as not just a man but an idea, a concept, a brand.
The bad news first: The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent isn’t great. It’s not especially funny, nor is its action particularly tense. Cage and Pascal are good — cheerful and game — but we’ve all seen them do better. Cage’s family is played by Catastrophe’s amazing Sharon Horgan, left little to do but nag, and Lilly Sheen, celebrity nepotism child of Michael Sheen and Kate Beckinsale, also left little to do but nag in a teenager-type of way. The CIA stuff is underbaked — Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz wasted — and though the movie is a fairly tight hour and forty-five minutes, it feels weirdly too short and abrupt for all that it touches on.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, however, is interesting, perhaps because as far as big budget, star-driven filmmaking in the year of 2022 goes, it is a profoundly cynical work, constantly at war with itself, led by one of the medium’s most enduring optimists. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent loves itself and hates itself in equal measure, and while it’s more fun when it’s indulging in the former (the film is often best when it’s annoying), the ways in which it constantly advocates against its own existence feels worthy of examination. The movie presents Nicolas Cage as a guy we all know and love. It’s impossible not to know at least one of his movies, if not several of them, but when the film thinks of what we want out of Cage, what we want is the past. He is mired by performances and references that are years, if not decades, old, while The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent tries to answer the question of, “What does Nicolas Cage do next?”. A movie within a movie subplot lets Cage and Javi run wild with their imaginations, and the film they come up with is a modest character-driven adult drama. Too bad that doesn’t exist, and we’re left with The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. The only way out, for better and worse, is in.
The Cage within the film is a nostalgic, sweet version of the actor, not too far off, likely, from the celebrity persona we know. He’s a cinephile, and all he wants to do is discuss his cinephilia, though no one in his closest circle wants to hear about it. This is framed as a selfish and overwrought personality trait within a movie constantly complaining that there are no good movies. Cage is noble and earnest, perhaps as he is in life, and this has handicapped him at every turn. Fortunately, he finds a missing piece of himself in Javi, whose undue enthusiasm for him and his work, and genuine curiosity about the craft molds them together. They go on little adventures. They drink, they eat, they do drugs. They talk about Javi’s script, which Cage knows is bad, but comes from such a place of genuine enthusiasm that he can’t help but respect the process. Even though Cage is stalling in Mallorca, trying to gather intel for the CIA, he relishes his time with Javi, the first person in a long time to not only understand his career, but him.
It is a profoundly cynical work, constantly at war with itself, led by one of the medium’s most enduring optimists.
Where the film shifts is a scene two-thirds of the way through in which Cage has a confrontational meal with his wife, Olivia, and daughter, Addy, brought to Mallorca by Javi in an attempt to smooth over what lingering strain is getting in the way of their writing process. Cage and his daughter Addy bicker about his incessant movie recommendations and overeagerness to watch older and more obscure entries in film history. Though Cage views this as sharing and nurturing, Addy and her mother (and inexplicably also Javi? Whose side is this guy on anyway?) agree that this is selfishness on the part of Cage, as well as a display of ego. What’s more: her father’s esoteric recommendations give Addy anxiety, the hot new thing we all suffer from.
There is something to be said about the idea that one person making recommendations all the time in any relationship — parent/child, romantic, friendly neighborhood librarian, whatever — leads to an irritating or suffocating asymmetry. But there’s a darker read on this conversation, one I have to indulge briefly, which is that it’s perhaps easier for the relationships of everyone to watch films that are not challenging, not old, not confusing, not entirely politically correct. If the idea of watching something like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari gives you “mental illness,” then it is “valid” to want to instead engage in the superhero/IP-driven model of filmmaking. Easier to understand movies, regardless of quality or what’s within them, make us all get along better. There is little to argue about after watching them. Isn’t that the best option?
That the great cinematic equalizer of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent — what everyone can agree is a worthwhile studio picture — is Paddington 2 doesn’t sit well. I love that movie, to be clear. I showed my family that movie, and they loved it too, and none of us got into an argument, and I experienced zero anxiety over the course of recommending and watching it. But it is also IP-driven and it is intended for children. It may be full of compassion and charm and also surprisingly abolitionist for what it is, but it is still simplistic and agreeable. I’m not necessarily advocating for everyone with aspiring intellectual tendencies to sprint out and see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but the film’s dismissal of more legitimate entries in favor of popcorn classics sits at odds with its central thesis.
Throughout the film, Cage and Javi bemoan the lack of the conversational, character-driven adult drama. Everything must be a splashy blockbuster! There has to be a hook! There has to be a trailer moment! They gripe about the marketing machine; there’s no love for agents or managers or any industry sorts. But again, they come back to the conversational, character-driven adult drama. Even in one of their odd little asides, Nicky confronts Cage about what he plans to do next if that’s the goal: “Be a gay uncle in a Duplass brothers movie?” (Sounds kind of good?) The thing is: Cage has made plenty of conversational, character-driven adult dramas. He’s done it his whole life. The film pays credit to Guarding Tess, and brief lip service to Moonstruck, but otherwise focuses on the bombastic entries of Cage’s filmography: Face/Off, Con Air, National Treasure. Even Croods 2 (formally titled The Croods: A New Age) gets lip service. Perhaps the Cage of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a Cage who never made Raising Arizona or Joe or Pig (obviously, there’s an issue of timing on that last one) but to both advocate for this type of filmmaking while also ignoring its presence in Cage’s own filmography feels dishonestThe Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent notably leaves out Leaving Las Vegas, the film for which Cage won an Academy Award. I would be fair to say that the whole movie is an homage to Adaptation which, according to its own logic, isn’t a Cage performance worthy of homage.
But now I’m sounding like the film’s version of Cage, well-meaning but dated, curious but past my prime. There’s fun to be had, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent argues, in thinking about what once was. Does it matter if movies are dead if we had plenty of good ones before?