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The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent works for Nic Cage in ways no one expected

In this film, he battles his past and his future (and French kisses one of them)

Tiffany Haddish snaps a selfie with Nicolas Cage in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent Photo: Karen Ballard/Lionsgate

This review was originally posted in conjunction with The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent’s initial screening at the 2022 media expo SXSW. It has been updated and republished for the movie’s theatrical release.

Nicolas Kim Coppola, better known as Nicolas Cage, would be a hard man to describe to anyone who was already unaware of his work. He’s a troubling and highly scrutinized public personality, an actor who’s received great acclaim in serious dramas, while also making a name for himself in cheap DTV films of dubious quality. He’s prime meme material. He’s probably inspired more “Is he a great performer or an awful one?” debates than any actor in his generation. He’s a prolific actor who continues to both entertain the masses and elevate even the weirdest little indie he’s in by sheer energy and force of charisma.

The thing about Nicolas Cage is that he also completely understands what the public wants — he’s a reflexive, audience-aware performer who plays into and against expectations with every line, every expression. This is why the idea behind The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is such a slippery slope: It’s a movie where Nicolas Cage plays a fictional version of himself (named Nick Cage, with the K) in a movie all about the legend of Nic Cage. After Cage himself has spent the last decade, at least, playing right into the public’s idea of Nic Cage’s identity, is a meta-comedy about the man himself just redundant? The answer, like everything related to Nicolas Cage, is complicated. The film works like gangbusters, and it’s a terrific vehicle for Cage, but not for the reasons people might expect.

To the credit of director Tom Gormican and his co-writer Kevin Etten, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent’s script is as audience-aware as Cage’s acting. The moment we first see Cage’s face, he’s in his car, hyping himself up for a meeting with Halloween Kills director David Gordon Green. Cage believes a role in Green’s latest movie will turn his career around and bring him back to the top — not that he ever left, as he likes to point out. This is a Cage who’s hungry for work, hungry for opportunities to exploit his love of acting and movies, but whose public persona follows him around like a specter, costing him the kind of role he’d rather be doing.

While Cage still plays into the whisper-then-scream range that’s built so many memes, his manic persona is portrayed as a beast wanting to be let out, rather than the whole of Nick Cage. That persona causes problems for Cage’s family, who are sick and tired of him prioritizing his job over them, and imposing his love of movies like Fritz Lang’s classic 1920 German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari on them. The biggest surprise about The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is that it’s so melancholic about the career Nic Cage possibly set out to get, vs. the one he got. His struggle here to reclaim the movie-star persona he once had in his Wild at Heart years, as he’s instead working on an endless parade of small indies, makes for a central part of the story.

In some ways, the film is reminiscent of the Val Kilmer documentary Val, which similarly looked at a once-acclaimed blockbuster star and revealed his deep sadness over being typecast as an action hero, when all he wanted was more serious and challenging roles, like in 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. The great tragedy of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, then, is seeing Nic Cage confront the larger-than-life persona people go nuts for, the jokes about his bad movies, and the glorification of his bigger movies, while all he wants to do in the film is to gush about Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Nicolas Cage throws his head back and howls while Pedro Pascal looks glum in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent Photo: Katalin Vermes/Lionsgate

Of course, things aren’t that simple. And as if Cage’s public image didn’t leave him with enough pressure, there’s also the personification of his public image himself: Nicky Cage, a young, Wild At Heart-era Cage played by Cage himself, though he’s humorously credited as Nicolas Kim Coppola. Nicky is brought to life through some possibly purposefully horrible de-aging. He’s the real star of the film, the ghost of fame past that serves as Nick’s devil on his shoulder. He’s the inner voice that constantly questions their decisions, heckling current, more mature Cage to stop looking for respectable gigs and just return to being a movie star. Not that he ever left.

So it’s unfortunate that Nicky is barely in the film, though his memorable scenes are sure to be GIF’d and shared for years to come. During a Q&A following the film’s premiere, the real Cage confessed that the Nicky role was what convinced him to join the film, but he said that many of Nicky’s scenes got cut, alongside more homages to Cage’s earlier work.

While the appeal of the film is just watching Nicolas Cage act as himself, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent still has a plot — though it doesn’t do the experience any favors. The story involves Cage agreeing to appear at a party for Spanish billionaire Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal), who may or may not also be a weapons dealer. In spite of the CIA begging Cage to do some spywork for them, he ends up falling head over heels for Javi, and they become BFFs.

While it would have been easy for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent to go full Misery about an obsessed, toxic fan, Javi is anything but. The best parts of the film are when the script lets Cage and Pascal just hang out and talk about life like they were in a Richard Linklater film. The two form a genuine connection over movies, from Dr. Caligari to the beauty of Paddington 2.

It’s strange to think of anyone besides Nicolas Cage logging the best performance in a movie all about Nicolas Cage, but Pascal absolutely steals the show as Javi. He shows up with all the charisma and charm that’s led him to be everything from Game of Thrones to The Mandalorian, and turns it up to 11. Even when exhibiting some odd fan behavior, like having a shrine to Nick Cage that includes a life-size wax statue, he’s so honest in his admiration that it’s impossible not to root for him.

The problem with The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is that Gormican and Etten want to have their cake and eat it too. After the first two acts focus on Nick Cage’s public persona and how that affects his life and career, and how he only does movies with big, bombastic action to sell the more serious stuff to casual moviegoers, the film becomes the same type of DTV action film it criticizes. The film tries to appeal to every single member of the church of Cage, especially fans of what Gormican called “deranged Cage” during the Q&A. This makes sense from a marketing perspective, since when Cage leans into that identity, he’s playing his more grandiose, better-known persona. And yet it’s a pity, because the quieter, dedicated, movie-loving Cage stands out the most, and he’s what makes the film a worthy addition to the Nic Cage mythos.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent opens in theaters on April 22.