Don’t Call it a Comeback! — The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent
There’s a fine line to walk when doing meta commentary within a movie. Essentially, when you do something so self-reflexive and self-referential, you’re catering mostly to an audience that knows the subject with more than just passing familiarity. As such, you open yourself up to more scrutiny whenever you flub something. This manifests a lot in franchise fare and various fandoms. For example, in Avengers: Endgame, Tony Stark refers to Thor as “Lebowski,” a nod to The Big Lebowski, starring Jeff Bridges. This tossed-off joke may seem funny in the moment, until you realize that Jeff Bridges also played the villain in the first Iron Man movie. So if he exists in this universe, what implications does that give to the character? Similarly, in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek movies, there’s some fun to be had with Kirk blasting out the Beastie Boys… until you realize that the song, “Intergalactic” has a direct reference to Mr. Spock, which creates an unintentional paradoxical logic loop.
But those are more minor examples for nerds like me to nitpick. The balance becomes even harder when you have a movie like The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, where the lead actor is playing an exaggerated version of himself, in this case Nicolas Cage. Now, on the one hand, this idea makes all the sense, because if there’s an actor versatile enough — and who’s had such a wide spectrum of moments on and off screen — to pull off intentional self-parody, it’s Cage. In fact, the writers of the film, Kevin Etten and director Tom Gormican, penned the script entirely on speculation with Cage in mind, and in interviews they’ve mused that had Cage not agreed to do the film, the best they could imagine would be an extreme method actor like Daniel Day-Lewis or Christian Bale in Cage lookalike prosthetics.
And there are the briefest of moments where the gambit doesn’t exactly pay off, because Cage is playing himself, but the rest of the highly recognizable cast isn’t. There’s no chance in hell we see CIA agents when we see Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz. It’s impossible to see Pedro Pascal being anyone other than Pedro Pascal. You can say “Fink” all you want (a bit on the nose for the character name), but Cage’s agent in this film is Neil Patrick Harris and no one else. Even Cage’s fictional family beggars belief, because Cage has been married five times now, so there’s little point in having Sharon Horgan play a made-up spouse, and he has a son (Kal-El) who could pass for being in the same age range as his manufactured daughter, Addy (Lily Sheen, daughter of Michael Sheen and Kate Beckinsale).
All of this muddies the illusion just a bit, because anyone watching this film either knows Cage’s work intimately, or at least knows his reputation and personae enough to go along for the ride. So in those brief moments where we’re forced to pretend A-listers are anything but themselves, it’s a bit hard to suspend disbelief.
Thankfully though, those moments are indeed brief, and even when they don’t make sense in theory, they work incredibly well in practice. Each of the high-profile actors has funny scenes as their one-note characters, and the film itself has a little bit of cheeky fun acknowledging their own puppet strings.
What really matters is the chemistry between Cage and Pascal, and it is through the freaking roof. The core enjoyment of this film is in someone like Nic Cage being able to laugh at himself, but what launches it into 2022’s early pantheon is the fact that Pedro Pascal can match him step for step.
The story, such as it is, concerns Cage at the end of his proverbial rope. He’s torn between his artistic integrity and his desire to be a successful yet unpredictable movie star, manifested by an hysterical imaginary form of himself called “Nicky,” who is CGI de-aged to look like Cage circa Wild at Heart. Again, the filmmakers themselves have fun with this, as “Nicky” is credited as being played by Nicolas Kim Coppola, Cage’s birth name. He’s also becoming estranged from his daughter, Addy, who at 16 resents him as all teenagers do, mostly because he tries to make her like the stuff he likes.
After being turned down for a role he really wanted, he begrudgingly accepts a million-dollar offer to appear at the birthday party of some Spanish magnate named Javi (Pascal) before retiring from acting altogether, as he feels he has hit rock bottom. Once he arrives in Majorca, Cage forms a rapport with Javi based on their mutual passions. He is then conscripted by two CIA Agents (Haddish and Barinholtz) to spy on Javi, as he’s suspected of being an international arms dealer and of kidnapping a local politician’s daughter. The real conflict of the film comes from Nic’s increasing affection for Javi and his desire to keep his family safe.
The movie itself acknowledges the rather flimsy premise by having Nic and Javi attempt to create their own film during the second and third acts, with the tone of the film shifting to accommodate their brainstorming. It’s executed quite well and is exceedingly clever, especially when they succumb to the imagined pressures of Hollywood and go for mass appeal action scenes. Along the way they poke fun at just about every cliché in cinema, as well as the myriad roles that Cage has played throughout his illustrious career, both good and bad. There is something genuinely reassuring about someone like Nic Cage leaning in to the absurdity of his own body of work, lauding the great and skewering the nonsense with good humor, while still showing an earnest degree of humanity in the process.
That alone would be enough to recommend this film, but what makes it truly amazing is Pedro Pascal. Our friendly neighborhood Mandalorian is amazingly able to match Cage’s manic energy, comedic timing, and physical panache every step of the way. He even steals a few scenes here and there. It’s honestly spectacular. Javi is a lifelong fan of Cage’s, to the point of near-obsession, and Pascal plays him like the perfect fanboy, modeling his lifestyle after everything from Face/Off to Guarding Tess, while at the same time maintaining his own individuality and respecting polite boundaries.
In lesser hands, this would almost be a disaster, but when the actors are as committed to the farce as humanly possible, we in the audience can commit to the underlying conceit and enjoy all the batshit insanity unfolding on screen. We know that Cage is at the end of the day just an actor, so of course he wouldn’t be able to take down actual international criminals, but he convinces us that he’s learned enough through osmosis that he can at least present a reasonable imitation. And while he’s doing that, there’s an onslaught of uproariously funny nonsense coming from every direction, so that we’re too busy laughing to really question any of it.
As I said at the beginning, there are a few elements along the margins that detract from the overall experience because they’re essentially too real for this fake real world, if that makes any sense. But in the end, I think of this movie like I would a souffle. It’s not perfect, but there are so many glorious elements that are given just the right amount of attention and care that it rises into its finest, most delicious form. This is a laugh riot made all the more believable by its centerpiece and the astonishingly great chemistry between its two main actors. As the film itself says, there are many moments that present this story as if it’s a comeback for Nicolas Cage, but as he and others note, “not that he went anywhere.”
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Would you like to see more stars play themselves? What’s your favorite Cage film? Let me know!