At some point between 2006’s The Wicker Man and 2012’s limp actioner Stolen, Nicolas Cage became a meme. Nowadays, becoming part of a meme can be a token of cultural relevance — a sign that an actor’s work has grown beloved enough to seep into the general public’s consciousness. But when YouTube compilation videos with titles like “Nicolas Cage Losing His Shit” were shared en masse via Reddit and Tumblr, Cage became the butt of a joke. Ripped completely from any context, these videos made Cage come across as a man incapable of nuance or self-awareness when, in fact, he’s shown plenty of both throughout his legendary career. It didn’t help that he spent much of the last decade starring in forgettable straight-to-Redbox dreck to (allegedly) pay off some massive debts.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is endearing mostly in spite of its straightforward studio-comedy antics but works surprisingly well as a treatise on every facet of Cage’s public persona — the eccentric recluse, the over-the-top performer, the post-divorce drunk, the unexpected action hero, the debt-ridden has-been and, most importantly, a truly singular acting force. The script (by director Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten) is clearly more interested in humanizing Cage — a man who’s spent the past decade as an ironic gag — than the kidnapping-adventure plot it uses as window dressing. When the movie is exploring the former, it’s disarmingly sweet. When it’s going through the action-comedy motions, it perhaps too closely resembles some of Cage’s recent D-movie material.
Lionsgate’s big marketing hook behind Unbearable Weight has been the fact that Nicolas Cage is playing a fictionalized version of himself named “Nick” Cage, and while the trailers have accentuated mostly that the Cage he portrays here is a goofy Hollywood weirdo, that’s not quite the full picture. We’re introduced to Nick during a meeting with a successful director (David Gordon Green of all people) that’s quickly going south. In an instance of sheer panic, Cage corners Green as he’s getting into his car and starts shouting his character’s monologue in the director’s face, complete with ludicrous hand gestures and a terrible Boston accent. The frantic desperation, the terrible acting … it’s the first of many nods to the real Cage’s rock-bottom moments in show business, but they’re played with a surprising amount of humor and self-deprecation.
After hearing he lost out on the part, Cage drunkenly interrupts his teenage daughter’s birthday party and embarrasses himself by getting the room’s attention to play an improvised piano ballad in his daughter’s honor. The next day, when he tries to pass off his boorish behavior as affectionate, she tells him, “You didn’t write that song for me. You got drunk and made it up, so the party could be about you.” That unflattering depiction of Cage is nonetheless down-to-earth for someone whose private life has been equated with excess and oddball behavior.
The actual narrative kicks in when Cage’s manager (Neil Patrick Harris) books him a highly unconventional gig of showing up for the birthday party of billionaire Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal), who happens to be a die-hard Nick Cage fan. Upon landing in Spain, Cage gets recruited by two CIA agents (Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz, wonderful comedic actors given very little to do here) who claim Javi is a murderous drug kingpin responsible for the kidnapping of a young girl, and Cage must go undercover to find her location.
Honestly, the plot isn’t too compelling, and it thankfully takes a backseat during a second act where Cage finds himself falling into a deep bromance with Javi as they begin writing a film together in which Cage can star. Scenes of Cage and Pascal bro-ing out over their favorite movies together (one unexpected watch party of a certain children’s film lands among the movie’s best gags) and dropping acid (Pascal gives the rare “high” performance that’s genuinely hilarious) are where Unbearable Weight shines. The two actors share a delightful chemistry with one another, and their scenes together are so charming that one kind of wishes director Gormican had made a travelogue comedy in the same vein as The Trip with Cage and Pascal playing themselves.
Viewers might really be wishing for that once the movie suddenly remembers it has a plot to resolve in the third act and Cage is forced to save a hapless kidnap victim from the clutches of a generic Evil Drug Lord. The action beats aren’t outright terrible by any means, but they feel half-hearted against the warm and playful comedy of the first two acts. What comes before that final act is by no means a revelatory commentary on the nature of celebrity to rival Being John Malkovich or anything, but Gormican’s clear affection for Cage’s talents, alongside the distinct chemistry of its two leads, make The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent an acceptable tribute to one of our greatest living actors. By the time that third act winds down however, you can’t help but feel Cage deserves a little more than just acceptable.