The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent! Starring Nicolas Cage as Nick Cage!
I went into this movie knowing nothing more about it than that. And I was vindicated in my advance presumption that pretty much everything you need to know about it is encapsulated in that summation. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Much of your own personal assessment of that will depend, I suspect, upon what you think of Nicolas Cage as an actor and entertainer. And what you think of the current rather sorry state of American movies.
Our reactions to movies, of course, are never not about all the baggage we bring with us into the cinema (or however you watch a film), but that is amplified here. I am a big fan of Cage’s work when he is allowed to be honest and sincere; his performance in last year’s anti-revenge drama Pig may be his finest, most delicate, most considered yet. But much of his work in recent years has been in hyperbolic genre films and of a heightened sort (Color Out of Space, Mom and Dad), so much so that the phrase “Cage rage” has come to describe it, not without justification and almost entirely approvingly. This over-the-top onscreen persona is celebrated in many cineaste circles… and if that amuses you, I’m happy for you. But it annoys the shit out of me, and I don’t find it fun.
So here’s the best thing about Massive Talent, and the thing that made it palatable to me: it finds a balance between acknowledging Cage’s recent onscreen persona — the wild, stylized intensity he has become so lionized for — and recognizing the limitations that come with the more plausible neuroses and insecurities of an actual Hollywood movie star (or of any creative person, no matter how successful). Cage may be portraying a fictionalized version of himself here, but it’s a believable one, one that is not ruled by knee-jerk violence and unthinking anger, one that is sweetly vulnerable and endearingly flawed. (He has an ongoing imaginary conversation with his younger, more arrogant self that is now the only use of de-aging technology that I will accept.) One appearance Cage rage makes here is in an impromptu audition for a film role that the actor “Nick Cage” is desperate to get. It’s a funny scene because it is aware of how absurd, if also how iconic, “Cage rage” is.
What The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent — the title is definitely ironic — is about is the contrast between movies and real life. Because when “Nick” fails to get that much-needed role, he is forced to take the only other job that is seemingly on offer: attending the birthday part of a billionaire superfan for a cool $1 million. Except the billionaire is shady, of course, and Nick gets sucked into being a CIA informant to help bring the billionaire down for his crimes. So what we end up with is a clash between the badassery we expect characters played by a “Nick Cage” to be able to pull off, and the “reality” of what a pampered, coddled, privileged movie star is capable of.
This is where nothing about Massive Talent is the least bit unexpected. Toss a movie star into a life-or-death situation involving guns, kidnapping, and other high crimes, and, well, you’ll find anything that happens surprising only if you don’t already realize that actors are most definitely not the characters they play, and that movies are most definitely not real life.
Not that this is a documentary, either, of course. Film fans know that Nicolas Cage is Nic, not “Nick.” That Neil Patrick Harris (Downsizing, Gone Girl) is not his actual agent (as he plays here). That Sharon Horgan (Together, How to Build a Girl), who plays his ex, is not one of his actual five wives (four ex, one current); she’s only six years younger than Cage, not the 30 years his latest spouse is. That’s a level of male insecurity the movie doesn’t dare go near.
This is an amusing movie, but it’s also an instantly forgettable one, fueled by a self-congratulatory smugness that sees self-reference as the highest form of humor. And yet the best bits of this movie are the more sincere stuff: the scene-stealing Pedro Pascal (The Mandalorian, Wonder Woman 1984) as the billionaire, who loves movies and adores “Nick Cage”; Tiffany Haddish (The Card Counter, Like a Boss) and Ike Barinholtz (The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, The Last Late Night) as the CIA agents who recruit “Nick.” There’s an unbearable weight to their tasks as straight men to Cage’s “Nick Cage.” They stoically endure the chore of winking at a thing without ever really challenging it.