movie review

How to Save a Movie Star From Himself

Nicolas Cage in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.
Nicolas Cage in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. Photo: Katalin Vermes/Focus Features

I don’t think aspirationist is a word, but I think Nicolas Cage would forgive me for making up a word to describe him, because that’s exactly what he is: American cinema’s great aspirationist. His characters are often trying to emulate or live up to an ideal — whether that be Elvis in Wild at Heart and Honeymoon in Vegas, Humphrey Bogart in Dog Eat Dog, Fabian in Peggy Sue Got Married, or simply the concept of domestic, child-filled bliss in Raising Arizona. Aspiration is the ideology that underlies his whole star persona. The people Cage plays don’t have goals; they have models. They live under the shadow of others and often seek to become them, which is funny because they are all still never not Nicolas Cage. (Therein lies the beauty of Face/Off, in which Nicolas Cage becomes John Travolta and John Travolta becomes Nicolas Cage, but they somehow both wind up being Nicolas Cage.)

What makes Tom Gormican’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent special, then, is not so much that Nicolas Cage plays Nicolas Cage but that the film presents us with a Nicolas Cage who spends a lot of time aspiring to be more like, well, “Nicolas Cage” — or as the film puts it, “Nick fuckin’ yahow! Cage!” That yelp comes courtesy of an unhinged, floppy-haired, de-aged version of Cage that “the real” Cage occasionally finds himself talking to, a version that still exists in the popular imagination. And it’s touching to watch the mopey older actor arguing (and at one point making out) with his blustery movie-star self because, in truth, both variations are pathetic: Movie Star Cage is full of empty, outdated gestures, and Serious Actor Cage is a self-important loser who pins down directors and delivers monologues as he desperately tries to land parts. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent presents us with a Cage who’s reached a dead end personally and professionally, but it also poignantly suggests that the dead end in question came a long, long time ago.

And so this self-centered celebrity and neglectful parent, running low on money and struggling to get the roles he really wants, agrees to fly to Mallorca to attend the birthday party of a Spanish billionaire named Javi (Pedro Pascal) for a million dollars. Depressed about his professional fortunes, Cage plans to announce his retirement from acting right after this last gig. Meanwhile, Javi is being staked out by two CIA agents (Ike Barinholtz and Tiffany Haddish), who believe he’s responsible for the recent kidnapping of the Catalan president’s daughter. They enlist Cage’s help in their investigation, and he soon finds himself torn between his hilariously inept attempts to locate the missing girl and his growing fondness for puppy-eyed, adoring superfan Javi, with whom he spends his time cliff-diving, talking old films, working on a script, and watching Paddington 2. (Massive Talent appears to have been made with one eye toward social-media ingratiation, which would ordinarily be annoying but here feels totally appropriate.)

Cage’s dilemma reflects the psychological rift in his character. The young girl he needs to save happens to be around the same age as his daughter (played by Lily Sheen, who is not actually Nicolas Cage’s daughter but is in fact Kate Beckinsale and Michael Sheen’s daughter), whom he loves but has alienated through his self-absorption. Javi, on the other hand, gives the movie-star egomaniac side of Cage renewed life, telling him he can’t retire. “You have a gift,” he tells Cage. “And to turn your back on this gift is to turn your back on the entire human race.” In return, Cage tells the CIA that through the intuitive power of his “nouveau-shamanic acting ability,” he can tell that Javi is innocent, a good soul. It all sounds like bullshit, of course, and it’s to Cage’s credit (the real Cage’s) that he’s allowed every single fiber of his public persona to be picked apart by this film.

There are modest twists here and there, and a couple of dropped bits suggest that the picture has gone through its share of postproduction challenges. In its broad strokes, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a fairly by-the-numbers action comedy, one that sometimes wears Cage’s presence like a talisman against the bad juju of slipshod storytelling. But the talisman works because the film never loses sight of its touchingly nutty premise and because Cage remains a compelling actor. For all the grandiosity and stylization of his performances, there’s always been something highly relatable about this need to live up to the image of others — a hazy inadequacy that marks him, ultimately, as one of us. This time, when the image he must live up to turns out to be Nicolas Cage, something quite wonderful and unexpectedly truthful emerges.

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How to Save a Movie Star From Himself