The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent
I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD, not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“You brought me nothing but pain” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, domestically and professionally. And yet, it’s pretty much good fun, something of a blast and an irrepressible ride, with Cage clearly fully on board and Pedro Pascal proving surprisingly likeable; how often can you say that? Plus, the movie knows when to quit.
Lucas: I would like to believe you, but either I kill you, or you kill Nicolas Cage.
The conceit here is that, rather than an actor playing themselves as a snivelling cowardly and/or obnoxious and preening, pampered Hollywood elite, Nicolas Cage is affable, amenable and more than capable of punching a villain out cold or shooting them dead. So not much different to movie Nic Cage. Which kind of fits. There are a few affectionate digs aimed at him, of course, such his penchant for making lots of movies, spending lots of money, and for making a performance spectacle of himself (“You know what, I’m going to read!” He tells David Gordon Green, who actually looks a tad malevolent, and so exactly the sort of guy who’d retcon Halloween – badly – and is doubtless looking forward to doing the same thing – badly – to The Exorcist).
This Nic has a strained relationship with his ex-wife and particularly his daughter, so obsessed is he with his own actorly transcendence and his movie loves (junior doesn’t appreciate The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). Anyone who’s seen his resumé for the past decade will know he’s not above taking cash gigs either, so the one dangled before him by agent Neil Patrick Harris – everywhere you look, there’s NPH just now. I guess 50 kazillion Twitter fans will do that – isn’t such a stretch. In this case, that gig is billionaire super-fan Javi Gutierrez’ (Pedro Pascal) birthday.
Turns out, though, the CIA are interested in Javi too, on account of his being a suspected arms dealer and kidnapper of the daughter of a Catalan politician. So Nic agrees to help the CIA out, even though he doubts Javi’s illicit credentials on account of his being such a Nic super fan and Nic having such a super time with him. Why, Javi’s favourite movies of all time are Face/Off, Caligari, Paddington 2 (the latter becomes a genius running gag. And let’s face it: it deserves the high praise). Along the way, Nic rigs some cameras in Javi’s compound, drugs himself and miraculously manages to administer the antidote despite being comatose (“Action!”), takes acid with Javi – in aid of writing their script together – discovers the latter’s shrine (and offers $20,000 for the life-size replica Face/Off Nic), and is suitably shocked when ex and daughter arrive for lunch, since it looks like his cover is blown.
Javi: I read that you did all you own stunts in Gone in 60 Seconds.
The intrusion of schematic plot mechanics – Javi’s cousin Lucas (Paco León) is the actual head honcho – is perhaps a shame, and Cage’s performance as disreputable associate Sergio is never quite as whacky as it might have been, despite the gonzo makeup (this could have been his chance to really Clouseau-it-up). And it’s during this third act that Cage confirms to us what a cool and capable customer Nic Cage is under fire. Nevertheless, he and Pascal have excellent chemistry, the latter all over his hero like an over-enthusiastic puppy – his dream owner come true. Plus, the constant Nic Cage movie references are often very funny: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (“Underrated for sure”); Gone in 60 Seconds; Guarding Tess; “Is that the chainsaw from Mandy?” And the truly nightmarish Nic Cage pillow. And perhaps too a dig at Adam Sandler picking his next Safdies role (“The gay uncle in the next Duplas Brothers kind of thing”).
The extended LSD sequence is also much funnier than it has any right to be, given this kind of thing has been done a thousand times. And is invariably better in person anyway. Besides the leads, Horgan is decent as the ex (and apparently a better actor than Nic when under pressure). NPH has little to do. Demi Moore – at least, that’s what it says here – has a cameo as another ex-wife. Tiffany Haddish… Sheesh, no amount of shaving your head will convince us (a) you can act and (b) you’re a CIA hard-ass (big ass, I’ll grant you).
What of Nic’s performance? Obviously, Wild at Heart-era Nicky is a CGI-enhanced recreation of his former self, but I’m not so sure what’s going on with his current incarnation. Is he suffering from facial paralysis? And then there are his alarmingly concentric teeth. And that facial hair is the look Keanu goes for when he’s had work done. On the other hand, maybe this is just a guy in a Nic Cage suit? Wouldn’t be that the ultimate meta-contra-meta-ness?* Either way, I found his face frequently distracting here, which wasn’t true of his hangdog presence in Pig.
Nicky: You tell ’em! Nick Cage smooches good!
No, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent isn’t “A smart, driven adult drama about real people”, but given Nic’s already appeared (as twins, no less) in an inevitably kind-of-meta Charlie Kaufmann movie, we wouldn’t have wanted him to repeat himself, now would we? This one is pretty throwaway, then, on that postmodern yardstick, closer to the Muppets than a profound existential rumination. And since that’s true of ninety percent of Nic’s output (ninety percent of whatever percent I’ve seen, anyway), that’s probably entirely appropriate.
*Addendum 05/09/22: Particularly if the Vril got Nic back in 2011.
First published by Now in Full Color on 01/07/22.