To rattle the Cage: ‘The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent’ sees Nic Cage face off with his mythos

photo of nicolas cage in massive talent
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Grade: 3.5/5.0

Nicolas Cage is a national treasure. Where most stars wink with placid relatability and meet expectations like the most mundane game of Mad Libs, Cage has cultivated his own mystique. He’s the kind of actor whose prolific performances wage a decades-long onslaught against naturalism; he’s the kind of celebrity who gets bailed out of jail by Dog the Bounty Hunter. Behind the camera and in front of it, Cage is a walking affirmation that Hollywood is the unhinged, glamorous jungle everyone suspects it to be.

The Oscar winner is something like a Cthulhu — the more you think you know him, the less you actually do. The rarity of this reputation glows as the gambit of his new movie: “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” directed by Tom Gormican.

Nic Cage stars as Nick Cage, a washed-up actor and detached father who’s down on his luck and set to quit acting for good. As he dawdles on the brink of financial ruin, Nick accepts a $1 million deal to appear at the birthday party of billionaire and Nick Cage superfan Javi, played by Pedro Pascal.

Nick is confronted by CIA agents Vivian (Tiffany Haddish) and Martin (Ike Barinholtz), who suggest Javi may have a darker past than Pascal’s glassy-eyed earnestness lets on. Cage agrees to join their mission and unravel Javi’s criminal empire. Yet, the CIA plot flusters the film’s stakes and sense of scale. Suddenly, the movie isn’t struggling under the weight of “massive talent,” but rather, its own plot.  

Over the past 40 years, Cage has amassed over 100 film credits, but he recently dubbed this role as his most challenging, calling it “a high wire act.” The actor’s nimble, committed performance, however, demonstrates that Cage knows his own circus, and he has never needed a net to walk a tightrope.

Cage captains the film with his typical blend of introspective intellect and extroverted mania. The breadth of the mercurial actor’s filmography is a frequent, and reliably funny, punchline. In the opening scene, a teenage girl watching “Con Air” calls him a “f—king legend,” and later, Vivian remarks that her nephew loved him in “The Croods 2.”

The film is laden with cheeky allusions to Cage’s past work and deeply preoccupied with the perception of Cage in the cultural consciousness. In times of duress, Nick conjures the leather-clad and unhinged figment of his imagination “Nicky,” a delightfully crazed replica of the actor’s younger self also played by Cage. Nicky, obnoxious and seemingly coked-up, evokes the 1990 “Wogan” interview where the actor catapulted on stage in a handspring and threw money at the live audience before he even sat down.

Though the film brims with knowledge and playful reverence, it seems hesitant to let star power shine at its brightest voltage. The 2022 film straddles the meta nature of “Adaptation” and the blockbuster bravado from Cage’s ‘90s stint. When the two sensibilities face off, “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” becomes a fairly paint-by-numbers action flick. When the action snowballs and loyalties are revealed, the played-out family danger feels more suited to the palatable likes of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson than the kinetic chaos of Nic Cage.

Beyond Easter eggs and one-liners, a welcomed distraction from hackneyed form is the chemistry between Cage and Pascal. Pascal parries and brings his own twist to Cage’s mercurial performance. Javi wants to make a movie with Nick, and since Nick’s pockets are perpetually empty, they’re rooted in Majorca. 

The dynamic between Nick and Javi melts the film’s waxy nostalgia, evergreen and refreshing since Pascal never lets his character flatten into an audience cipher. From lysergic misadventures to crying over “Paddington 2,” Nick and Javi paint the glittering seaside as Cage and Pascal radiate the easy charm of Richard Linklater leads.

 Soaked in Majorca sunbeams, “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” warms as a meta-reflexive ode to the dynamic actor. The film is like a nesting doll, enjoyable at its first layer but all the more rewarding for Cage devotees. At the same time, audiences do not need to binge Cage’s entire filmography to understand the film. 

As Javi’s sensitive adoration suggests, the film underscores the importance of moviemaking as a vehicle to understand the values of life. Moreover, it delivers an overdue consecration of Cage as an unreplaceable fixture of Hollywood, distinguished by the sheer volume of his filmography and the unmatched acting ethos that endures and adapts in every performance.

Contact Maya Thompson at [email protected].