The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent stands out in the genre of meta celebrity portraits—not just positioning Nicolas Cage at the centre of it, but bending in every direction to cater to the star’s signature style, flair and baggage. Featuring Cage playing a down-in-the-mouth version of himself, it’s not just a work of metaness—as glued to its star’s weird charisma as I’m Still Here is to Joaquin Phoenix—but a gung ho celebration, with a self-effacing undercurrent cushioning what could have come across a cringey vanity project.
In an early scene Cage converses with a therapist who gives him shtick for working so prolifically, prompting him to kvetch about how no other profession attracts this sort of criticism: that somebody is working too much or too hard. Fair point—and the kind of dialogue that would only make sense coming from a very limited number of actors.
Unbearable Weight opens with two people on a couch watching Con Air, who have time to comment on the awesomeness of la Cage before they’re knocked out and kidnapped by balaclava-wearing goons. This early splodge of crime fades into the background, the first act instead caricaturing Cage’s character and present situation, involving tensions with his teenage daughter (Lily Sheen) and makeup-artist wife Olivia (Sharon Horgan) and—more entertainingly—his struggle to get work and play the Hollywood game.
This game requires various kinds of hobnobbing, inevitably leading to conversations in which a director’s recent work is compared to the greats (it’s King Lear!) and how a new role is just perfect: the actor was born to play it, it’ll be the performance of his life, a yada yada. Cage swelters in a sauna with his agent (Neil Patrick Harris) who bears good news, sort of: a Spanish billionaire, Javi (Pedro Pascal), will give Cage a million bucks simply to attend a party he’s throwing in Mallorca. Easy cash, but Cage interprets this as hitting rock bottom career-wise and contemplates the unthinkable: retiring from acting.
Two plot threads raise the prospect of our dejected meta-hero potentially experiencing a second wind. The first involves Javi being his biggest fan, with a room in his mansion devoted to Cage (featuring a Face/Off wax statuette and a freaky sequin cushion) and a script in which he wants the man himself to star. The second is that the billionaire devotee belongs to a criminal family and may be involved in that kidnapping at the start. Cue high concept plot twist: the CIA asks our already unbearably talented man to extend his repertoire by becoming a secret agent—and he of course agrees.
The film is larded with Cage references appealing to the sick, foolish, stupefied sickos we call Cage completists: a club I consider myself a part of, having written The Cage Gauge—the world’s longest (and possibly only) up-to-date ranked list of all his movies. Thus I rather enjoyed Javi reminiscing on the under-appreciated bodyguard comedy Guarding Tess (ranked #22 on The Cage Gauge) and even welcomed a mention of the Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (which, sorry Javi, is still very bad: ranked#72).
True Cage completists, however, are the nichest of niche audiences, so director Tom Gormican makes the comedy broad enough to appeal to general appreciators. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a good title, hinting at the absurd excessiveness of its premise, while the film itself makes clear its love for Cage is as genuine as Javi’s. Pedro Pascal plays the superfan with an appealingly laidback aura, though early reports suggesting he “steals the show” from Cage are absurd. Almost nobody ever steals the show from Cage (one exception can be found in Red Rock West, with Cage playing the straight man opposite a characteristically wild Dennis Hopper).
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There are times when Unbearable Weight feels, paradoxically, bold in a safe kind of way—drinking from the cauldron of Cage without fully embracing the fearless, midnight movie spirit of experimentation that characterises his most explosively flamboyant work—such Mandy (#4 on The Cage Gauge) and Vampire’s Kiss (the Holy Grail, at #1). It was no surprise that the film’s most memorable embellishment comes from Cage himself, who also plays a younger, alter-ego-ish double called Nicky, periodically appearing to encourage his present-day self to be bolder, weirder, louder, more distinctly Cage-like, with a Cage-tastic catch cry in the exclamation “I’m Nic ffuuuuucckkiiiinnnnnggg Cage!”
This is not the first time Cage has done a Jekyll and Hyde routine (see also: the Ghost Rider movies) but it is the first time the devil on his shoulders has been…himself. Or—given he’s playing up to his own legend—himself-ish. Gormican’s film is shits and giggles fandom: slight, zestily self-aware and thoroughly entertaining.