Review: The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

It’s a fair assumption that if you’re reading this blog, you like films. Taking that into account, you’ll either love, tolerate or despise Nicolas Cage, whose unique acting and propensity for bizarre roles has made him a cult actor starring in cult films. And in the inevitable journey toward the peak of his powers, Cage has now starred as a version of himself in a film that references, savages and celebrates his career.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent sees “Nick Cage” (Cage) washed up and considering retirement as roles fall through, and his estrangement from his ex-wife (Sharon Horgan) and his daughter (Lily Mo Sheen) are solely down to his ego and arrogance. Taking what money he can get, he ventures to Mallorca to spend time with a billionaire superfan, Javi (Pedro Pascal), and what follows takes in high and lowbrow cinema, Cage’s most high-profile roles, criminal gangs, family angst, drugs and much much more.

Without a doubt, and despite recent competition (The Matrix Resurrections), this film is the most metatextual, self-referential and frankly self-devouring film I’ve ever seen. Hollywood loves to glorify itself and analyse its past, but The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent perfectly skewers and celebrates its main actor and character, and Cage ably portrays himself as the world sees him without a hint of arrogance or concern. It’s frankly unprecedented levels of self-mockery, and only Nicolas Cage could do this.

Director and writer Tom Gormican (alongside co-writer Kevin Etten) bravely pitched this film to Cage with assurances that he was not looking to attack, but instead celebrate Cage’s career. What’s clear when you watch is that the makers are huge fans of Cage, but at the same time hyper-aware of how the world perceives him, for good and for ill. At the same time, they throw this meta referencing element into a mixer with a fairly standard story, in doing so making much more of what (on its own) would be a flimsy comedy action thriller.

Indeed, there are points during the middle act where Gormican and Etten essentially start picking apart the fabric of their own script in a meta-meta scene, which gave me this spectacular sense of woozy weirdness. The film never quite reaches this height again, but it’s one hint of how clever movie-making about movie-making can be when handled well and with intelligence.

While the movie eventually falls into more stock tropes and ends with a little bit of a whimper, the journey to get there is entertaining in the extreme for those of us familiar with Cage’s career. The writers craft all manner of references into this film, whether it be visual motifs, off-handed mentions, actual props, musical quotes or detailed conversations. I’m sure once this is available for watching at home that enterprising nerds will list every Cage film referenced – there are that many.

Its weaknesses do nothing to take away from the madness of the conceit, I have to say – and what makes it all work is the man himself. This film is nothing without Cage’s input. He sends himself up, he mocks every assumption or slight that’s been publicly made about him, and he allows the filmmakers to tear him down to his constituent parts. It’s remarkable.

A great part of how the film does this is to have Cage play “himself” and a younger, 80s version of himself (“Nicky”) that serves as a sort of internal voice as well as a critical source of self-doubt. Cage gets to play these different elements of himself in both understated and wildly overstated ways, and while the CGI on the younger Cage is obvious, he serves a clever purpose in deconstructing and mocking our assumed perceptions of Cage being SHOUTY and MANIC.

As the more normal version of himself, Cage is far more “normal” and at the same time far more arrogant, egotistical, self-assured and self-doubting, sending his modern-day self up a treat. There are some moments of high drama where he offers a hint of his abilities, just as there are moments where he indulges in physical comedy, furious rage, drug-fuelled mania or emotional heft. It’s absolutely what you expect and more, and I was really impressed he engaged 110% in this like he has.

The film’s shot convincingly in Dubrovnik despite being set in Mallorca and LA, and with real locations this never feels stagey or fake thanks to Nigel Bluck’s outdoorsy cinematography. It’s cleverly edited at times by Melissa Bretherton to acknowledge time jumps, narcotic episodes and just plain homages to Cage films gone by, and the film doesn’t stick around either. Musically it’s not particularly memorable, but then Mark Isham’s score has to compete with some absolute bangers from Cage’s films past, which stick in the mind like glue (one particular film/song/score kicks the film off in such a way).

Being a comedy-action-thriller-drama-spoof hybrid, the second part of that is actually hilariously underplayed, referencing the fact that we’re dealing with an actor and not a superhero when it comes to driving or shooting guns. While it all goes a bit mad towards the end (and by that, I mean less believable), the film does its best to stay fairly realistic, and some of the action is hilarious as a result.

I mentioned those competing genres earlier, and one I forgot to mention is romance. Here, we’ve got one of the funniest bromances in recent times, thanks to the underrated talents of Pedro Pascal (who most might know, or not know, as The Mandalorian). He’s excellent as a fanboy in awe of his hero, who gets to achieve an array of dreams alongside Cage while at the same time having a more complex story. Pascal is effortlessly funny, whether completely mashed and paranoid in one of the film’s standout moments, or even in undercutting more emotional, dramatic scenes.

It’s great to see Sharon Horgan appearing in more Hollywood films, but here the Irish actress isn’t really able to flex those comedy chops or make much of an impact beyond the rote character of “disdainful ex-wife” Olivia. She’s definitely wasted here, and I felt the film could have done so much more with her. Lily Mo Sheen is memorable as Cage’s daughter Addy, giving her dad what for when it comes to her disappointments and increasingly low expectations of him.

Outside these main four, another top comedic actress is wasted in Tiffany Haddish, who plays things very straight as a CIA staffer trying to get Cage onside, while Ike Barinholtz makes little impact as her anger-fuelled partner. Paco Leon has much more luck as Javi’s manic peroxide cousin and gang member, all wide unhinged expressions and jittery, trigger-happy violence.

If there are any other supporting characters that actually make an impact, ironically the two referencing the cinematic world do: Neil Patrick Harris’ blowhard agent Fink effortlessly fluffs Cage up despite knowing he’s washed up, and a top cameo from director David Gordon Green sees the maker of the recent Halloween films experience the full force of Cage’s ego in a memorably awkward early scene.

Outside of the areas where it does fall down, I really quite enjoyed the creative madness and intelligence that this film brings. It’s a real love letter to the uniqueness of Nicolas Cage, and everything that worked and that stuck with me is thanks to the fact that Cage saw the opportunity here to take aim at his own career and public image. It’s a remarkably brave thing to have done, and if you’re any kind of film fan with experience of Nicolas Cage cinema, it’s good fun and well worth seeing.

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