The Bearable Lightness of “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent”

Unbearable Weight!

…and yet, not a single shout-out to 8MM.

Not counting animated gigs (ranked by quality and in reverse release order: Spider-Verse, The Croods, Astro Boy) the last time I paid to see Nicolas Cage’s distorted face live on a theater screen was 2009’s Knowing, which I’d forgotten existed till just now. I suspect I’m not alone in having given up on Cage’s career after he descended from the ranks of Oscar-winning A-listers to join the Redbox human-running-gag lineup as the easiest possible means to solve his gargantuan tax and debt issues. Once upon a time it would’ve been the second-easiest means, right after “do an A-list film for an A-list paycheck”.

Now that he’s officially announced himself debt-free, the next obvious step is a comeback tour. For me that journey began last year with Pig, such a lovely little heartbreaker of a film that I wish I’d seen it sooner so I could’ve ranked it highly in one of my year-in-review lists. That apparently wasn’t enough to win back the hearts of millions of forsakers, though. Perhaps its sincerity and low violence quotient frightened and confused younger Cage fans who simply assumed he too was battling elder abuse and aphasia. Hence the comeback tour’s Plan B: whimsical self-deprecation.

Thus the face of the dude who might be the new Hardest-Working Man in Showbiz returns to theaters in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent courtesy of writer/director Tom Gormican (a creator of the short-lived Adam Scott/Craig Robinson misfire Ghosted) and co-writer Kevin Etten (Comedy Central’s Workaholics). Rather than stand aloof while the internet mocks him with every new release, why not lean into the mockery and subvert it from within? Then perhaps we can all laugh together, do some healing, forgive at least twenty of his last three dozen films, and start a useless petition to get National Treasure 3 greenlit.

If only going meta were that easy. Penetrate the fourth wall with acuity and pizzazz, and you have yourself a Birdman or a Deadpool. (I’m leaving out all Charlie Kaufman films for the sake of giving Cage a more merciful grading curve.) Go too easy on yourself, and you’re trapped in The Last Action Hero or JCVD. Massive Talent lands somewhere in the middle, not nearly as outrageously outside-the-box as it needed to be, nor is it painful to watch. Really, it’s almost too easy to watch.

Our Hero is essentially the Nic Cage of Earth-2, a former superstar who can’t get the plum roles he wants, but seems in a curious lull between schlock jobs. The millions he once owed have been reduced to the singular caricature of an unpaid $600,000 5-star hotel bill. In the good-old-days Hollywood used to throw so much cash at him that one of his assistants’ assistants could’ve paid that bill for him.

In case the viewer has forgotten or has never watched a movie before, this film’s very first scene watches a young couple watching the final scene of Con Air, which is a spoiler for anyone who to this day never knew whether anyone ever put the bunny back in the box. “Hey, remember Con Air? That was awesome!” say the filmmakers as they try elbowing the viewer into a compliant state of Cage nostalgia.

Alas, for Cage those days feel gone. His ex-wife (Sharon Horgan) is mad at him. His career is shot. He hasn’t added to his mansion collection in years. He’s had it. He’s about to retire from acting and find a new career. (As we learned from Robert Townsend’s satire Hollywood Shuffle: there’s always work at the Post Office!) Then a fateful opportunity cuddles up to him like a needy puppy: a wealthy patron in Spain wants to pay him a cool million to do his birthday party. It sounds humiliating, but at least it’s a rich man’s party and not a bunch of snotty brats, like what happened to two of the Ghostbusters. And that lump sum might even beat doing comic cons or Cameo gigs.

Not for the first time in his life, Cage takes a crazy risk and it pays off. Enter the best thing about Massive Talent, nearly-A-lister Pedro Pascal. As the billionaire Javi, he’s Cage’s #1 fan, an enthusiast who’s probably watched and rewatched everything in his IMDb entry, including all the DVD extras. Naturally he’s rich enough to have an entire showroom for his collection of authentic Nicolas Cage props and memorabilia. The grand tour is the film’s most blatant abuse of Easter eggs, where every viewer can feel proud for recognizing at least one Cage reference among the numerous options at hand.

Fanboy pandering aside, Javi is exactly the infectious encourager Cage needs to lead him through his crisis of confidence. They bond not only over Cage’s oeuvre but over movie love in general. (Paddington 2 cheerleaders will be most pleased.) At times Pascal is more fun to watch than Cage. Not that Cage himself is boring, mind you. And in times when he’s too calm and Pascal isn’t around, out pops his imaginary friend — Cage in a second role as the whoopin’ ‘n’ hollerin’ avatar of What People Think Cage Is Really Like, complete with ’90s-dreamboat haircut and Wild at Heart T-shirt that’s once again the filmmakers’ jabby elbows, albeit toward a smaller audience sect.

What could’ve been a sentimental buddy-buddy dramedy about an artist reconnecting with his passion (like, say, a less tragic Pig) squanders some of its charms in the second half as there must be an inevitable contrivance of conflict so that the film can even have a second half. Cage is accosted by two CIA agents, Tiffany Haddish (still toying with dramatic flair as she did in The Card Counter) and Ike Barinholtz (Suicide Squad), who suspect Javi isn’t as clean-cut as we might wish, and might be involved in an arms-dealing ring and a political kidnapping. They need Cage to be their inside man to help them prove their hunch. They take it for granted that he’s not just an ordinary civilian who shouldn’t be put in harm’s way; he’s Action Hero and Academy Award Winner Nicolas Frickin’ Cage. And maybe, just maybe, playing at real-life heroism will make him want to do imaginary heroism again.

At this point Massive Talent turns disappointingly lightweight. The best meta films tend not to fall back on hoary, flimsy sitcom plots. Ordinary Person Forced to Fake Their Way Through Espionage has been done in any number of old comedies, from The Spy Who Knew Too Little to Spies Like Us to TV’s Chuck and going into decades even farther back. Bob Hope was doing this shtick in 1943 in They Got Me Covered. It’s amazing how many classic actors fit the bill when you Google “[insert name] pretends to be a spy”. There’s a certain joy to the idea of Cage rediscovering his mojo, but the joke-pacing is cranked down to make room for standard, disposable shoot-’em-up fare we were just deriding several paragraphs ago. When the non-meta subplot overrides the meta concept, it’s tedious and wastes time and goodwill. (It also works overtime to minimize Javi’s ultimate culpability because the film loves him too much and never wants to stop hugging him.)

Viewers who thought Cage might allow the film to cross the line from silly self-parody into scathing self-satire are kidding themselves. Apart from one particularly goofy scene between the two Cages, Massive Talent never really lives up to, or even references, the irony promised in its title, or makes good on its mangled Milan Kundera reference. Granted, had it been too mean-spirited, Cage wouldn’t have done it in the first place. He’s the star and a credited producer, which effectively puts him in charge of his own roast.

You might get a kick out of this anyway if Cage and his heyday were majorly your thing, as long as you don’t mind the distracting sounds of geeks behind the camera giving self-high-fives for their viewing habits. Even if you don’t love every Cage film ever, much of this remains amusing enough, and Pascal is endearing enough, that it’ll still be the best new flick on Redbox the week of its release.

Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Cage’s agent is Neil Patrick Harris, who, despite my complaints about it, gave better meta in The Matrix Resurrections. Whereas Cage’s four ex-wives were condensed into one, his two real sons are replaced by one fictional teenage daughter played by Lily Sheen, the offspring of Kate Beckinsale and Michael Sheen (whom she very much resembles).

David Gordon Green, whose last film Halloween Kills could’ve used someone like Cage to save it, has one scene as himself refusing to cast Cage in his next non-sellout drama. And keep a close eye toward the end for Demi Moore in a fleeting scene-within-a-scene.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent end credits, but viewers who kept a scorecard of all the Cage film references they spotted are treated to a full acknowledgment list to tally their results. If you found at least three, you’re the whiny guy from Peggy Sue Got Married. If you found ten or more, you’re the ex-master chef from Pig, a Cage-knowing genius who has to shame all the Cage-knowing poseurs out there who go through the Cage-fandom motions but have clearly lost touch with what being a Cage-matcher really means.

What do you, The Viewers at Home, think?

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