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The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent
Directed by Tom Gormican
Written by Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten
Starring Nicolas Cage, Pedro Pascal and Sharon Horgan
Classification R; 105 minutes
Opens in theatres April 22
In the right directorial hands, a film in which Nicolas Cage plays Nicolas Cage would be a perfect bit of meta-movie madness. After a decade-plus of watching the actor – once a true prince of Hollywood – playing to the cheap seats with a string of B- to C- to D-movies, the promise of Cage upending his own extra-intense image should be a cult-cinema slam dunk. And perhaps if someone like Spike Jonze were taking on the Cage-match task, then the new film The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent might’ve worked. But I know Spike Jonze, I’ve even seen a great Nicolas Cage movie directed by Spike Jonze, and you, Tom Gormican, are no Spike Jonze.
A cheap, crass and ruthlessly sloppy skewering of celebrity culture that is barely a millimetre above the material it thinks it is so sharply satirizing, Gormican’s new film is the definition of disappointment. I would say that the filmmaker hit the jackpot by convincing Cage to star in his Hollywood-plays-itself comedy (was his backup choice John Travolta?) but that goes against the movie’s own reality-mining conceit: As we’ve seen time and again, Cage will take any project that lands in his lap. The difference between The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent and Cage’s VOD trash like Primal, Kill Chain, Arsenal ain’t that much of a difference at all. Cage’s name still sells, even if he can’t quite sell his own movie. And the joke is still on the audience.
I spent most of The Unbearable Weight clinging to the hope that the one great novelty of Gormican’s script (co-written with Kevin Etten) might carry the film through. Nic Cage playing a semi-fictional version of himself is a fantastic opportunity to dissect fame, desperation and the many illnesses of contemporary culture – this could be the twin turnaround moment for Cage that started with last year’s Pig. But there is a distinct, bewildering lack of commitment to the bit from everyone involved. Even Cage, who achieves here an unprecedented kind of filmography ouroboros, seems embarrassed. This is Robert Altman’s The Player for dummies. A career homage by way of a cheap punchline. A roast delivered by the hackiest comedian on the circuit. An Entourage episode writ large. Take your pick of insults – this movie deserves most of ‘em.
The film opens with actor “Nick Cage” (note the extra “k,” helpfully separating the real Nic from this movie’s version ever so slightly) as he’s running around Los Angeles trying to secure decent roles in order to pay down his crushing debts. There is an unintentionally wince-inducing scene in which he scares off filmmaker David Gordon Green (who cast the real Cage in 2013′s Joe), and another wince-inducing sequence where he bemoans his career prospects to his slick agent (Neil Patrick Harris, unfortunately not playing himself). Also: this universe’s Cage has a cute teenage daughter (Lily Mo Sheen), a frustrated-but-loving ex-wife (Sharon Horgan), and an imaginary version of his younger self who pops up to goad the older Cage into becoming the actor he deserves to be. In real life, Cage has four ex-wives, two children, and presumably no imaginary alter ego, but who can say for sure?
These fudgings of reality would all be fine if Gormican’s film were building to something half-clever. But that special something never comes, even after Gormican reveals the film’s actual plot, in which Cage is lured by the promise of an easy $1-million payday to attend the birthday party of olive-oil billionaire Javi (Pedro Pascal), who happens to be the world’s No. 1 Nic (sorry, “Nick”) Cage superfan. Again, lots of potential in that set-up, glimmers of which can be glimpsed in Javi’s amateur museum housing Cage movie artifacts, a sort of National Treasure home for the star of National Treasure. But the story immediately devolves into a cartel-centric shoot-’em-up adventure. One which unintentionally echoes Cage’s direct-to-VOD garbage in its vaguely European setting, cheapo set-pieces and ultimate disposability.
It would be one thing if Gormican (whose previous film, the Zac Efron comedy That Awkward Moment, should have dampened everyone’s expectations from the get-go) had wasted his one opportunity to spark a true Cage-aissance. The star will emerge from this fine – even if no one ever sees this movie, its in-joke cultural profile is buzzy enough to give his career a much-needed, much-deserved charge. And Gormican is smart enough (or enough of a self-loather?) to include plenty of clips from Cage’s other, better movies here, which should spark a run on the actor’s catalogue titles. So: fine. But Gormican also wastes an astounding number of talented supporting players in his quest to wring mediocrity from genius.
The usually wry Horgan is completely underutilized in an angry-ex-wife role. Pascal is saddled with a second banana/superfan role that never quite makes sense. And stealth comic stars Ike Barinholtz and Tiffany Hadish (reunited after their 2018 film The Oath, for the one person who remembers that film: me) try their absolute best but fail to bring any life to their roles as squirmy CIA agents.
While watching The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent the other week (don’t worry, its title only superficially references Milan Kundera’s novel), there was one moment where I thought I was simply existing in another reality. After all, the reviews coming out of the film’s SXSW Festival premiere were rapturous.
But then it clicked: Those critics had attended a packed screening attended by Cage himself. Everyone there, including the star, wanted so badly for the film to work – for Cage’s genuine brilliance to be recognized in true comeback fairy-tale fashion – that they willed the film to elevated life. But remove the breathless world of festival screenings, and the heady world of celebrity – that unbearable weight of Hollywood fantasy – and reality hits hard. Nic Cage, you deserve so much better than Nick Cage.
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