The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent
(Lionsgate Films, 2021)
When a young woman in her twenties sits down to smoke a joint and watch a Nic Cage film, it’s unlikely that Con Air (1997) would be her first choice. Yet, this is how The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022)—Cage’s latest film, a lighthearted comedy in which the actor plays a parodic version of himself strapped for cash and forced to spend paid time with a fan who may or may not be an arms dealer—begins. Replete with kidnappings, superfan and superspy antics, and references to Cage’s filmography that only the most dedicated Cage acolyte will be able to catch, the film is designed as a love letter to, as Cage himself describes in the film, the actor’s “contribution to one of the oldest professions: storytelling and mythmaking.” While the film is an enjoyable, good-hearted, and worthy veneration of Cage’s career, this first reference to Con Air, as well as the references that make up the majority of the film’s metacommentary on his career as a whole, demonstrates the challenge of fully encapsulating the complex, enduring, and varied star appeal of an enigmatic cult object like Nicolas Cage.
Younger millennials and the oldest members of Gen Z were raised on the National Treasure franchise and Kick-Ass (2010). Subsequently, they were introduced to his more unusual B-movie fare: repertory screenings of older films like Vampire’s Kiss (1988), DVD copies of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009), and even psychedelic independent gems, like Mandy (2018), Color Out of Space (2019), and Willy’s Wonderland (2021). For this younger audience, Nic Cage’s appeal lies in his charismatic weirdness, his penchant for on-screen freakouts—and stealing the Declaration of Independence.
Unbearable Weight’s director Tom Gormican emphasized his desire to highlight Cage’s diversity of roles and actively engage with the nuances of his star appeal. In an interview for Letterboxd, Gormican said, “He’s done everything. We thought the opportunity to try to do that in one film would be interesting to him … there’s a world where people constantly litigate [Cage’s] identity in public all the time. Wouldn’t it be an interesting thing to take the reins of that narrative with a feature film?” Ultimately, however, in attempting to paint a portrait of Cage’s persona, the film exalts only a particular era of the actor’s filmography while downplaying and parodying the importance of his more recent work in the independent films that saved him from the deprivations of the bargain bin while canonizing his cult status.
Nic Cage’s unorthodox approach to method acting (“nouveau-shamanic,” he quips in the film, “I’m a thespian.”) and decades-long, genre-spanning ouvre of more than one hundred film roles has long provided him with a dedicated fanbase. From his early years, Cage threaded the needle between parts in auteur films, such as his uncle Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club (1984) or David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), and building up a persona as an earnest yet hotheaded heartthrob in films like Valley Girl (1983), Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), and Moonstruck (1987). From the outset, Cage’s performances were characterized by an exaggerated hyper-theatricality (his “I LOST MY HAND! I LOST MY BRIDE!” monologue from Moonstruck, for example, or screaming his ABCs in Vampire’s Kiss) that would later come to be his trademark.
Over the course of the 1990s and early 2000s, Cage would pivot to balancing a more hard-boiled persona in the action films beloved by many members of Gen X, such as The Rock (1996), Face/Off (1997), Gone in 60 Seconds (2000), and Con Air, with serious roles in films like Leaving Las Vegas (1995) and Adaptation (2002) (all of which are referenced in Unbearable Weight). As his financial and legal troubles mounted in the late-2000s, Cage found himself going from one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood in 2009 to appearing in B-action films like Drive Angry 3D, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, and Season of the Witch, all in 2011 alone, to pay off his massive debts.
Like other actors of his generation—Bruce Willis or John Travolta, for example—Cage’s transition to action B-films could have become the sole mainstay of his career. In more recent years, however, he managed to find new life starring in a combination of low-budget action films and grindhouse-oriented independent films geared towards young, cult/midnight moviegoers. This new wave of “freakout” movies arguably begins with Mom and Dad (2017). Premiering in the Midnight Madness portion of the 2017 Toronto Film Festival, Mom and Dad was praised by cult film icon John Waters and marketed as “Home Alone on bath salts.” Plus, Cage’s performance was advertised in trailers as “nutzoid” before a clip of the actor singing a profane rendition of the hokey-pokey while demolishing a door with a mallet.
This career shift is not in reality a radical departure from Cage’s earlier work, nor is it indicative of an actor resting on his laurels. He continued to appear in more serious roles in films like David Gordon-Green’s Joe (2013) and the critically acclaimed (albeit meme-ified) Pig (2021). From the beginning of his career, Cage’s “over-the-top” performances were rooted in his particular approach to method acting that, in its earnestness, demonstrates his lack of ironic dismissal of his “weirder” roles. That precise dedication to each and every role, no matter how odd, likely forms the core of his rehabilitated cult appeal to the Gen Z stoners represented in the first scene of Unbearable Weight. Cage has said that his extreme performance in Vampire’s Kiss, for example, was inspired—as Unbearable Weight points out—by expressionistic silent films like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922). For his role as a drug-addled cop in Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant, Cage claims to have told the famed auteur that he wanted to be the “Klaus Kinski of California,” in reference to the revered yet infamously eccentric and difficult star of many Herzog films.
With all of this in mind, it is interesting to note that Gormican’s action-comedy paean to Cage’s oeuvre represents this most recent phase of independent films so critical to the “Nicolas Cageassance” as something of a pit stop on a career defined by blockbuster action films. Throughout Unbearable Weight, the verbal and narrative references that structure the film are almost exclusively to Cage’s 1990s action movie phase, with Face/Off and Con Air bookending the plot. In a moment of frustration, Cage’s character exclaims that he’s taken so many small roles over the past decade or so because he’s just “trying to feed [his] family.” His agent, played by Neil Patrick Harris, corrects him when he says he’s an actor: “You're a fucking movie star,” he cajoles, “make movie star choices.”
Conversely, his newer films are continually joked about. Indeed, in a parody of his more exaggerated performances, “Nic Cage” the character is introduced in the film screaming during an audition for a role in a major studio film. Almost immediately, he loses out on the part. Later, as Cage brainstorms the plot of a new film with his superfan and companion, Javi (Pedro Pascal), the two of them, in a pointedly random episode, take acid together, prompting Javi to say, “Maybe it's just the drugs talking, but maybe we should have a huge fucking trip sequence.” The appeal of Cage’s recent “freakout” films is defined in large part by psychedelia. As such, their trip sequences are typically shot subjectively and experimentally to recreate a psychedelic experience (Mandy is an excellent example of this). In Unbearable Weight, however, the duo’s acid trip is shot objectively for comedy, largely in wide shots designed to highlight the absurdity of their mental disorientation.
Like Con Air, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is unlikely to be at the top of a twenty-something stoner’s Nic Cage watchlist. The film celebrates the actor for his talent, his storied career, and his cult status from the very particular perspective of a Cage fan raised in the 1980s. For this generation, Cage is defined by his quest to get his daughter a birthday bunny instead of his quest to kidnap the president of the United States—or, to the delight of an older generation of Baby Boomers, to woo Cher at the opera. The fact that Cage’s appeal literally spans three generations proves that The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a worthy and entertaining enterprise. Its inability to fully capture the actor’s appeal also proves the film’s larger raison d’être. In its very existence, the film leaves no doubt that, as the young woman watching Con Air murmurs to herself, “Nic Cage is a fucking legend.”