When I went to see Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent yesterday, I wanted to see Nicholas Cage un-caged, if you will, delivering a zany performance as he and his co-star bumbled from one over-the-top set piece to another. Vampire’s Kiss meets Lethal Weapon. Instead what I got was a story of a movie star and his biggest fan just experiencing life together…until the shooting started that was. Make no mistake though. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While action and espionage do play a part, it’s the quieter moments that really seemed to resonate and make this both a fun parody and a tribute to Cage’s career.
Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a meta-comedy where Nicholas Cage plays a fictional version of himself. After losing out on a coveted acting role, a desperate cage takes what he thinks is a quick payout of a million dollars by attending the birthday party of infamous crime lord Javi Gutierrez, played by Pedro Pascal, who turns out to be Cage’s biggest fan. Upon arrival, Cage is enlisted by the US government to help take down Javi’s operation and recover a recently kidnapped young girl. However, as the investigation continues, Cage finds his loyalties conflicted between the government and his number one fan.
With a premise like that, it seems that over-the-top shenanigans would be a given. Rest assured there are lots of examples of physical and dialogue-based comedy in the film. There are of course the obligatory celebrity cameos as you always see in Hollywood meta films. The opening of the movie finds Cage attempting to woo real-life director David Gordon Green With in order to get a coveted part. The results are as awkward and un-Caged as you’d expect, and sets up our lead character perfectly.
Cage is portrayed as someone obsessed with high culture, the arts, and himself, which comes at the expense of his relationship with his wife Olivia and daughter Addy, played by Sharon Horgan and Lilly Sheen respectively. The beginning of the film finds the family in therapy, following a disagreement between Cage and Addy about the fabled silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Later on, Cage drunkenly crashes Addy’s party with an impromptu piano song after finding out he didn’t get the Green part. Cage is not likable at this stage of the film, but he is fascinating enough to keep us interested, especially when his narcissism manifests itself in a younger version of Cage, dubbed ‘Nicky’ whom he talks to on a regular basis. It’s in this way the film gives us the two modes of Nicholas Cage, giving us both the serious Cage who got his Oscar in Leaving Las Vegas, and the over the top meme machine from such classics as Face-Off and Vampire’s Kiss. We get the best of both worlds.
Love Me Tender
When Cage gets to Javi’s island, one would expect the film to devolve into various shenanigans, and there absolutely are such moments where physical comedy takes center stage. One rather funny scene finds Cage desperately trying to seek out the antidote to a potent drug after he accidentally poisons himself. However, where the film really shines is the relationship between Cage and Pascal. Pascal’s Javi is a very endearing character who captures the spirit of the movie fan in all of us. While Cage’s friends and acquaintances view him with annoyance, Javi puts Cage on a pedestal and wants nothing more than to catch the attention of his hero. This leads to some great moments of comedy, such as a scene where the two go into town on LSD, but also leads to some surprisingly tender moments.
When Cage and Pascal start hitting it off in the film, their chemistry really shines. One scene finds Javi explaining that it was their mutual love of a Nicholas Cage movie that allowed him and his father to reconcile shortly before his death. Another scene finds the two speaking about favorite films, leading to a fierce debate amongst the pair that is both comedic and emotional gold. This is due in no small part to the talents of Pedro Pascal, who delivers a shockingly earnest performance for what was billed as a screwball action-comedy. Javi is the heart and soul of the film because the film is at its core about the love of movies, and Javi’s enthusiasm for Cage’s career and cinema as a whole was a lot like looking in a mirror for this film critic. This in truth is most of the film, with Cage and Javi’s awkward meeting blossoming into a friendship between movie star and movie fan.
The film also has a rich supporting cast who are thankfully able to show off their various comedic chops over the course of the film. Horgan and Sheen are great as Cage’s fictional wife and daughter, with Horgan acting as the straight character in an increasingly insane story. Horgan frequently shows her frustrations with Cage’s narcissism, but it’s still clear that she cares deeply about him and longs for happier days. Sheen’s Addy meanwhile captures quite well the pressures of having a famous parent and constant worry about being overshadowed. Then there are the two government agents played by Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz, who provide some of the funniest moments in the film as Cage only bungles their attempts to investigate Javi.
What Do You Think I’m Gonna Do? I’m Gonna Save The F**kin’ Day!
Okay, so the film is billed as an action-comedy, right? So where is all the action? Well, it’s mostly concentrated to the third act where Cage and Javi find themselves thrown into a wild and improvised adventure that both are ill-equipped to handle. In this way, the film is much like The Dirty Dozen, with the bulk of it focused on character growth that builds up to a rousing action finale. So how does the finale work?
This is where the review gets a little tricky, because though it started out subdued and eventually builds to an action climax, it never feels like two separate movies. The film never jumps the rails and remains more or less tonally consistent. Because of this, the action is never really over the top, and never really funny, which on the one hand is somewhat disappointing for someone going in expecting to laugh quite a bit. It didn’t feel like the movie that was advertised, but it did feel like the movie I was watching. The film instead focuses less on the over the top set pieces and various Cage-outs, and stays focused on the relationships between the characters, which is really what the film was about.
This isn’t to say the action is weak. We get car chases, motorcycle pursuits, gun battles, fistfights and of course, the heroes going into the lion’s den disguised as bad guys. It may not be up to the same level as Face-Off, but all the action hallmarks are here once it gets going, just don’t go in expecting it to get going for a while. Once it starts, I get the feeling aficionados of Cage’s filmography will have themselves a good time.
I didn’t enjoy the film as much as I thought I did, but this is more the fault of the advertisement than the film itself, as well as my own personal wishes. I’m not an uber-fan of Cage, but have always admired his ability to pivot from something dramatic and moving like Leaving Las Vegas to a feature-length meme-like Vampire’s Kiss. I was hoping for Vampire’s Kiss Cage in this, but didn’t get it to the degree I was hoping for. Was I disappointed? Yes. Was I a little let down that I wasn’t laughing as hard as I expected to? You betcha. Am I glad I saw the movie? Absolutely. It may not have been the bloodbath I went in to see, but watching a fellow movie nerd just getting to spend time with his personal hero? It’s enough to get me as emotional as Paddington 2
That reference will make sense for those who have already seen Massive Talent. For those who haven’t? Give it a watch to find out.