MOVIE REVIEW – Despite a clever initial set-up, Tom Gormican’s film is not the self-reflexive, Hollywood-confronting-itself sketch you’d expect.
At the start of director Tom Gormican’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, Nicolas Cage – or rather “Nick Cage” – is going for a role that he hopes will mark his comeback. “It’s not like we’ve gone anywhere,” he keeps reminding himself. It’s a sentiment that will resonate with many fan Cage addicts. Although Cage hasn’t starred in a big-budget studio film in the last decade, he nevertheless regularly and excitingly experiments with his craft in countless bucks-grade VOD projects (six were released in 2019 alone). Add to that the likes of Pig, a quirky, acclaimed indie film and his meme-ability in internet culture, and the dedicated actor’s cult fanbase has reached an unprecedented fever pitch.
A limelight-addicted star who fears being forgotten
From the very first moment, the unbearable weight of this gigantic talent illustrates Cage’s almost innate inability to stay out of the limelight. “You seem to be working all the time,” says his therapist Cheryl (Joanna Bobin), who wonders why he’s so excited about a particular role. But for Nick, this role – in a prestige film directed by David Gordon Green – is about recapturing the sense of mainstream success he achieved in the heyday of the ’90s and early 2000s.
The only character in the film who doesn’t question Nick’s momentum is Nicky Cage (also played by Cage), the embodiment of his raging self, the ageless version of the actor who dressed up in David Lynch’s Mad Men costume (one of Cage’s most heartfelt, classic films and also his most intense role), and who pops up from time to time to keep our hero’s eyes on the prize. “You’re a movie star! And don’t you forget it!” shouts Nicky, when the actor contemplates simply starring in independent films to end his career. And as Nick frets in L.A., often whining to his indifferent agent Richard Fink (Neil Patrick Harris) or awkwardly cornering Green at a lunch meeting with a witty Edward G. Robinson impersonation, Cage deliberately exposes the desperation of a celebrity who is forever afraid he will never be loved again.
He does not confront Holywood and its stars with themselves
Despite the unbearable weight of this clever set-up, it’s not the self-reflexive, Hollywood-confronting jab one would expect. After losing the coveted role, a dejected Nick accepts a million-dollar offer to fly to Spain and appear at the birthday party of a billionaire superfan, Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal), and the film settles into the familiar comedy-film routine we’ve seen a thousand times before from Cage and others. Unbeknownst to Nick, Javi is also a puppet of a drug cartel, under surveillance by the CIA for possible involvement in the kidnapping of a presidential candidate’s daughter (Katrin Vankova). So when two agents, Vivan (Tiffany Haddish) and Martin (Ike Barinholtz), spot the actor’s arrival at Javi’s villa in Majorca, they immediately recruit him to spy on the billionaire.
Even those who don’t want to know what exactly drives this particular Cage may be disappointed by the film’s transformation into a “humbling” action-comedy, as it seems an unfortunate exit strategy from the initially giddy concept that Gormican and his co-screenwriter Kevin Etten built around his star. By the time Javi’s real-life villain cousin Lucas (Paco León) appears on the scene and kicks off a third act full of routine shootouts and car chases, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent has already been pretty obviously tamed into just the kind of clichéd dozen-part comedy that this film could have been originally fictionalized somewhere.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is filled in by an equally contrived and inconsequential subplot about Nick’s attempts to repair his relationship with his fictional ex-wife Olivia (Sharon Horgan) and teenage daughter Addy (Lily Mo Sheen). The filmmakers occasionally make references to Cage’s earlier work, such as when Nick Castor takes out Troy’s golden guns to blaze glory once more, but these jokes remain painfully superficial in a film that was meant to be so much more and also reveal little of substance about Cage’s impressive career.
Pascal and Cage carry the film on their backs
That the unbearable weight of The Gigantic Talent does not descend into total banality is due to the friendship between Nick and Javi, which gives the film a surprisingly emotional undertone. For Javi, who has written a screenplay in which he hopes his idol will star, watching Nick’s films (and others) together provides a momentary respite from the shackles of his criminal family. Pascal plays this role endearingly, sometimes managing to be both funny and heartfelt, as in the scene where Javi gives his birthday speech, comparing his strained relationship with his father to the relationship between Nicolas Cage and Shirley MacLaine’s characters in The Old Lady and the Bodyguard.
And in Javi, Nick finally finds a real friend to share his enthusiasm for the art he loves so much. For Cage, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent may not be the full meta-question of his personality that it initially promises, but it does give him the opportunity to simply relax and love the everyday, film nerd version of himself that favors Dr. Caligari’s cabinet.
For an actor who has always pushed his own boundaries throughout his career, it’s almost gratifying to be so comfortable with himself now. The question is, do we simply want a film like this from Nicolas Cage?