Having starred in a deliciously odd self-portrait by and of Charlie Kaufman, ADAPTATION, Nicolas Cage has waited two decades to take the surreal meta-plunge again and waiting for just the right script has paid off for him and for us. In THE UNBEARABLE WEIGHT OF MASSIVE TALENT, he plays a fictionalized version of himself, hamstrung by debt, crushed by his failures as a father, and unfulfilled as an artist, despite effusive protestations to the contrary. The script, co-written by director Tom Gormican, gambols through cinematic tropes and genres with blithe insouciance and gleeful brio as Cage battles increasingly bizarre situations and a younger version of himself who is not above getting very, very physical.
Fresh off being passed over by David Gordon Greene for what he considers the role of a lifetime, and facing an acute cash crunch, Cage accepts a $1M paycheck to attend the birthday party of a superfan. There are worse ways to earn a paycheck, and this one involves a private jet to Majorca, and staying in a posh compound overlooking the sea. The superfan, Javi (Pedro Pascal), is an olive grove tycoon with the eager earnestness of a puppy dog and a way of looking at Cage that is the visual rendition of gobsmacked idol worship. He is also given to flights of purple prose when praising Cage’s contribution of art. Oh, and he has a script that he would love his idol to read.
The story, which also involves two bickering CIA agents (Ike Barhinholz and Tiffany Hadish) entangling Cage in a spy operation involving the kidnapped daughter of a Catalonian presidential candidate, becomes more deranged as the film progresses even as the internal logic holds. And it also becomes more meta, as Cage and Javi come up with a script that will be character driven, yet also have a hook, a trailer moment if you will, to bring the audience into theaters, the plot of which manifests itself in their adventures. Self-reflexive irony ensues as some of Cage’s biggest onscreen hits are referenced, and the movie biz is skewered with scathing takedowns, from Cage’s glib agent (Neil Patrick Harris) who can turn on a dime without missing a beat of fake sincerity, to the absurdity of egregious product placement, to an acid trip as a bonding experience seeking inspiration from different planes of reality.
If this were merely a comedic romp, and it is certainly that, it would suffice. But Cage, while being simultaneously honest and arch, has a poignant quality that elevates the material into something, well, existential. It’s why he can claim to be from the Nouveau Shamanic school of acting, and acknowledge both the pretension of it, and the need to be something more than just a movie star going to work in front of a camera. There is palpable regret in his scenes with movie daughter Addy (Lily Sheen) and ex-wife Olivia (Sharon Horgan), as well as the complete lack of self-awareness that so alienates them, despite him being the textbook definition of self-involved and self-absorbed. He’s a jerk, but he doesn’t mean to be. He just hasn’t got a clue where he’s going (and continuing to go) wrong. In all of this, Cage is supported by a cast wielding pitch-perfect performances that balance precipitously between caricature and character.
As Cage says constantly as his alter-ego, this next film will bring him back, not that he was ever really gone, and THE INCREDIBLE WEIGHT OF MASSIVE TALENT reminds us what made Nicholas Cage the movie star he is. Sly, and, ahem, massively intelligent, it’s the silliest exercise in gnothi seauton going in cinema, using lampoon of the highest order to ruthlessly examine pop culture and what it means live authentically. No, really.