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‘The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent’ review: Nicolas Cage plays himself — that’s all you need to know

Ryan Oquiza

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‘The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent’ review: Nicolas Cage plays himself — that’s all you need to know
Nicolas Cage injects life (and a little bit of insanity) into a self-referential comedy that honors his eccentric career and the art of performance

This is a spoiler-free review.

When Nicolas Cage won an Oscar for playing a hobbled alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas back in 1996, he remarked: “I know it’s not hip to say this, but I just love acting, and I hope that there will be more encouragement for movies where we can experiment and fast forward into the future of acting.”

Years later, doing an average of about five movies per year, Cage has emerged as one of the underrated faces of acting. He got his wish to experiment with all kinds of movies, both big and small. He made use of his penchant for unbridled rage in Mandy, shined as a melancholic recluse in Pig, and offered his crispy voice to The Croods: A New Age and Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse. Needless to say, this is precisely the kind of path that Cage must have imagined for himself — and this new film is the cherry on top.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent celebrates a singular kind of actor, one who rose from the ashes of an ‘80s teenage movie (his first cinematic role was Fast Times at Ridgemont High), soared at the height of ‘90s action thrillers (Con-Air, The Rock, and Face/Off), and began embracing his mainstream side in the early 2000s (Gone in 60 Seconds, National Treasure, and the unintentionally hilarious The Wicker Man). What better way to recognize a career that has it all than to give the guy a much-needed vacation on the scenic coast of Croatia?

Cage, playing Cage, begins the journey decked with sunglasses and alcohol, just about done with his acting life. A narcissist both inwardly and outwardly (a sexually charged exchange occurs between him and a younger Nic Cage fresh off a 1990 Wogan interview), he fails to connect with his teenage daughter, Addy (played by Lily Sheen) and is pitied by his ex-wife, Olivia (played by Sharon Horgan). Cage is hilarious as the annoying film buff who keeps telling you to watch an obscure German expressionist film. It probably isn’t even far off from who he is in real life (based on his amazing Reddit AMA), adding an irreverent charm to his performance.

After failed attempts to garner a breakout movie role, he reluctantly accepts the offer given to his agent, Richard (played by Neil Patrick Harris), to go on an island owned by a vaguely rich personality named Javi Gutierrez (played by the electric Pedro Pascal) for $1 million. Javi is a massive fan of Cage, even owning a grotesque life-sized sculpture of Castor Troy from Face/Off with gold-plated double pistols. Nic learns to love the oddball billionaire, owing to some cliffside shenanigans and LSD-induced paranoia. Little does he know, Javi is hiding a dark secret that leaves Cage no choice but to channel his self-proclaimed “Nouveau Shamanic” acting to save the day.

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Nicolas Cage plays Nick Cage in tailor-made ‘The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent’

Nicolas Cage plays Nick Cage in tailor-made ‘The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent’

Nicolas Cage is a true chameleon in the role, once acting as a superficial egoist in one scene, reprising his alcoholic defeatism in another, and then embodying his action slickness later on as if he never left Con-Air. He now sits alongside a highly esteemed group of actors playing themselves (or at least fictionalized versions of themselves). Along with him, a couple of my favorites are Jean-Claude Van Damme in JCVD, Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep, and John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich. While those films offer more reprieves from convention and emphasize the incongruities of stardom, Cage embraces the existential and discovers a new revelation regarding performance.

Straddling the line between acting and reality, Cage learns, in the hardest way possible, that the self-importance derived from artificiality is dangerous. To save the day and kick the bad guys, Cage must snap out of the arrogance afforded by idolization and learn that there are higher virtues aside from getting a big movie break. It’s an endearing arc that is almost as sappy and sentimental as Paddington 2. One can claim that the film relies on convention and lacks incisiveness in the comedy, but I’d much rather have that than the aimless wandering of whatever the meta-narrative was in The Lost City.

However, the film misses a golden opportunity to confront the perils of obsession and Hollywood insincerity, especially in the character of Javi, who just passes off as a lovable goofball. If not him, then maybe through the third act reveal, which ends up being one-note even by Nicolas Cage movie standards. Nevertheless, there’s a guilty pleasure to be had in laughing with a film that pats filmmaking on the back (à la Argo and La La Land) and ignores its implications outside of Cage’s character. Consequently, CIA agents Vivan (played by Tiffany Hadish) and Martin (played by Ike Barinholtz) end up underused and overshadowed, save for one hilarious gag in a server room.

The only one who can match Cage’s idiosyncrasy is Pedro Pascal as the anxious and ingratiating Javi. Pascal is the Robin to Cage’s Batman, the Roger Murtaugh to Martin Riggs, and the Sundance Kid to Butch Cassidy. There’s a spontaneity in his performance, comedic in the most childlike way while remaining earnest in his own eccentricities. He matches perfectly with the cynicism of Cage due to the misplaced idealism that defines him, kind of like the real Nicky in the early years of his career. 

With endless pronouncements on the beauty of films (lots of love is thrown towards The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and, in particular, the fading relevance of a distinct actor like Cage, The Unberable Weight of Massive Talent might seem bloated and conceited at first glance. But when rereading the title, one begins to think whether that was director Tom Gormican’s intended reaction in the first place. Because who else has the bloated comic force, the unwavering pretentiousness, and the exaggerated bluntness in the industry other than Nic Cage? 

So while the film isn’t a Citizen Kane per se, the man in it is as larger-than-life, if not larger, than the iconic titular character and undoubtedly belongs in the hall of fame of acting. –

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Ryan Oquiza

Ryan Oquiza is a film critic for Rappler and has contributed articles to CNN Philippines Life, Washington City Paper, and PhilSTAR Life.