It’s not uncommon for a writer to develop a script with a particular actor in mind; it’s another thing if that script entirely relies on the specific actor to say ‘yes’. Yet that’s the risky approach that writer-director Tom Gormican took with his meta action-comedy The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, a film based solely on the persona of Nicolas Cage. Apparently it took three attempts before Cage agreed. His reluctance is understandable: to accept a sophomore film director’s proposal to play a parody of his public image is a precarious and risky venture. Luckily, the resulting film is a joy.
That said, Cage is hardly an actor to shy away from taking risks. Of course he’s enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent times, with Mandy, Color Out of Space and last year’s Pig garnering critical and popular success, even if last year’s entertaining Prisoners of the Ghostland failed to set the box office alight.
I suspect this means that nowadays the real Nicolas Cage is much more secure and confident than the anxious and desperate fictional version he plays in Gormican’s film, scrabbling for roles just to furnish his lavish debts, a situation the real actor famously experienced in the early 2000s after squandering his blockbuster years’ fortune on eccentric purchases ($276,000 dinosaur skull?, $150,000 pet octopus?), and when he had to sell off most of his properties to pay a crippling tax bill. This fictional version is not only creatively unfulfilled but also has a teenaged daughter who resents his lack of interest in her life and an ex-wife who’s tired of his self-absorption; cue an opportunity for redemption.
That opportunity comes in the form of a $1,000,000 offer to make a personal appearance at a party in Spain hosted by a wealthy fan Javi (Pedro Pascal). When Cage flies out to the luxury villa on the Mallorcan coastline, he finds to his surprise a kindred spirit in Javi with a similar love of movies (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari unexpectedly), and spirit of adventure. Things take a surprising turn when Cage is recruited by a CIA agent (Tiffany Haddish) who suspects Javi of being a drug cartel boss and kidnapper, and wants the actor to be an insider spy.
The plot itself is unnecessarily convoluted and messy while still predictable, but it really doesn’t matter. It’s best just to sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s very entertaining and often very funny – and I mean laugh-out-loud funny. Daft set-pieces and scenes that often send up Cage’s bizarre acting style are constantly fun to watch and even though this is essentially a one-joke movie its sunny nature, zippy pace and genuine warmth make this tongue-in-cheek meta-thriller a winner.
With its hyperbolic title inspired by The Unbearable Lightness of Being as well as perhaps Dave Egger’s A Heart-breaking Work of Staggering Genius, this could never be a film that takes itself too seriously. There are plenty of self-referential moments, numerous nods to hits such as Con Air and Face/Off, as well as memorable atrocities such as the ill-advised The Wicker Man remake. It even includes a shrine devoted to all things Cagean, a tongue-in-cheek celebration of his ‘massive talent’. There are ample references to satisfy even the most dedicated fans including a floppy-haired uncanny-valley deep-fake Cage sporting a Wild At Heart t-shirt straight from the famous Terry Wogan interview.
The film’s amiability is secured by Pedro Pascal’s performance as billionaire host Javi. Javi and Cage form an engaging odd couple, and the film’s charm pivots on their on-screen rapport. Although Pascal’s performance is perhaps too likeable to inhabit any genuine sense of danger, the plot still manages to sustain some minor intrigue around Javi’s real motives. Other characters – Sharon Horgan as Cage’s ex-wife, Tiffany Haddish as the CIA agent, Jacob Scipio as a more threatening villain – are lightweight and underwritten but adequate, and in this fast-moving narrative we don’t really need to know more about them.
It also doesn’t hurt that the movie is mostly set in a beautiful sun-kissed coastal location with a feel-good soundtrack Massive Talent is sheer escapism. There are more sophisticated meta Cage movies – Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation immediately comes to mind – but in this he simply plays himself and seems to be having a ball. We never forget he’s always in on the joke, but the film never falls into the trap of ego or narcissism, nor does it get weighed down in a sense of its own cleverness. The plot admittedly runs out of steam in the third act and relies on gunfights and a kidnapping rescue for momentum, but Cage’s commitment to the role means it’s more than a compendium of knowing winks and greatest memes.
There’s no doubt that Massive Talent could have been a far richer and inventive film; Cage could have been weirder and the plot could have been more daring. But this is just a fun-house film, and very enjoyable for it.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is released in UK cinemas on 21st April 2022.Follow @davefilmblog