To play as one’s actual self in Hollywood means you’ve arrived, but to do so in a leading role is a pinnacle of self-referential performance normally reserved for the top echelon of the acting elite. John Malkovich (Being John Malkovich), Paul Giamatti (Cold Souls), Sean Penn (What Just Happened) are among this exclusive group, as well as a couple of their brethren in the action movie camp, Jean-Claude Van Damme (JCVD) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Last Action Hero).
Inclusion in this group also likely means you’re male (sadly it’s still very much a boy’s club), prolific in your output, and were pushing fifty or older at the time of your induction. More importantly, it’s likely that you were exploring the concept of “meta” long before the word became a part of our pop-culture lexicon, and possibly even before it was even considered cool. In fact, you could argue that the above films practically made meta cool in Hollywood in the first place.
Joining the ranks of the Hollywood meta-elite this weekend is no other than Nicolas Cage, whose turn as a fictional version of his real-life self in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent will officially punch his ticket to said supergroup status when it releases on Friday. And while I’ve clearly spun up this whole “meta-elite” concept to make the launch of this film sound even more significant than it actually is, 2022 actually marks four decades of working in the movie industry for the seemingly unstoppable Cage, and in my humble opinion, there are no other actors in the aforementioned meta-elite that are more deserving of membership. That’s because none of these actors possess a filmography that runs the gamut from blockbuster hits to stinkers to cult classics like Cage’s does, which offers up a literal treasure trove of cinematic fodder for his new film to mine for meta-comedy gold.
The premise of Massive Talent sets the stage perfectly for some highbrow satire. After failing to secure a juicy role in an upcoming blockbuster film and fearing that he might be well past the peak of his acting talents, Nick Cage (of course, played by Nicolas Cage) is convinced by his agent Richard (Neil Patrick Harris) to take on a $1 million dollar appearance at a billionaire’s birthday party in Majorca, Spain in order to help pay off his various debts.
“The premise of Massive Talent sets the stage perfectly for some highbrow satire.”
Upon his arrival at the airport, however, Nick is intercepted by CIA Agents Vivian and Martin who inform him that Javi Guiterrez, the wealthy olive-grove magnate and Nick Cage superfan that has employed his services, is actually the mastermind of a murderous international drug and weapons cartel. For business reasons, the cartel has allegedly kidnapped the daughter of the Italian president as leverage in that country’s upcoming election. With Nick being their only way in, Vivian implores that the actor spy for them while at the Guiterrez estate so that they can locate and rescue the girl, who is around the same age as Nick’s fictional “real life” daughter, Addy.
Things get even more complicated,however,r when Nick meets the unexpectedly kind-natured Javi face-to-face (played by Pedro Pascal of The Mandalorian), whom, after an awkward introduction and taking a literal leap of faith together while exploring the estate’s seaside cliffs, both men discover they are actually kindred film lovers and form an extremely fast friendship. Javi just so happens to have a script that he hopes Nick will agree to star in, and while Nick refuses to believe that Javi is anything more than an obsessed fan with surprisingly good taste in films, he seizes on the script read as an opportunity to extend his stay and secretly assist agents Vivian and Martin in their search for the hostage.
Somehow convincing himself that his decades of experience playing in various roles have fatefully prepared him for the role of a real-life super-spy, an assessment that turns out to be equal parts fact and fiction. The script gets scrapped for an entirely new dramatic film idea which initially focuses on the bond between Nick and Javi. It eventually morphs into an action thriller in which Nick’s daughter gets kidnapped, that’s when the meta rubber meets the action road.
Without spoiling too much, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent primarily serves as a light action-comedy that simultaneously celebrates and lampoons Cage’s most memorable roles and films from his 40 years in Hollywood. The most amusing of these references isn’t merely a callback, but instead is an actual character in the film, Nicky Cage, a figment of Nick’s imagination also played by Cage but modelled after the actor’s 1990 portrayal of Sailor Ripley in director David Lynch’s Wild at Heart. A frenetic cross between Nick’s id and ego, Nicky occasionally appears out of nowhere to boost Cage’s confidence by loudly reminding him how big of a superstar he is, but the effectiveness of his hilariously aggressive “I’M NICK FU#%ING CAGE” cheerleading moments are questionable to say the least.
Beyond the scene-stealing Nicky, Massive Talent is loaded with multiple shout-outs to Nicholas Cage blockbusters like Con-Air, The Rock, and Face/Off, critically-acclaimed fare such as Guarding Tess and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and even box-office flops like The Wicker Man. There is quite an assortment of gags, but writer and director Tom Gormican manages to keep them all relevant to the plot. In fact, my one disappointment with Massive Talent is that Gormican didn’t lean in even harder towards the meta and go deeper, given Cage’s four storied decades of work.
I admit that part of that letdown is of my own making. While I’m not necessarily a huge fan of all of Cage’s films, I’m a COLOSSAL fan of the Spike Jonze-directed, Charlie Kaufman-penned duo of films Being John Malkovich (1999) and Adaptation (2002), the latter which starred Nicolas Cage portraying a fictional version of screenwriter Kaufman as well his twin brother and fellow writer Donald (completely fictional). Much like in Massive Talent, the protagonist struggles to adapt a non-fiction book into a screenplay that unfolds as real-life events influence its direction. In other words, the script Kaufman is writing becomes the story he is experiencing in real time and vice versa.
“…I definitely went into Massive Talent expecting some deep fourth-wall-breaking, potentially genre-bending stuff.”
Influenced by my now 20-year-old memories of Adaptation’s meta-narrative, my nostalgia for Nicolas Cage’s dual-role as Charlie and Donald and the intentionally pretentious title of this latest Nick Cage vehicle, I definitely went into Massive Talent expecting some deep fourth-wall-breaking, potentially genre-bending stuff. I was quite ready for Massive Talent to go just about anywhere and throwback to almost anything (just not the bees…not the bees).
What I ultimately got out of it, however, was a fairly standard action-comedy satire that succeeds in delivering the laughs in large thanks to Cage’s willingness to poke fun at himself (with Gormican’s help, of course). That combined with the fictional Nick Cage’s nonsensical on-again/off-again “super-powers”— which at one moment can easily explain away an unlikely plot element with ease but can completely fail him the next—made for a fun film going experience, even as it verges on the nonsensical.
In fact, between Nick’s bumbling misadventures in spy craft, his struggle to reconnect with his young teenage daughter Addy (fictional) and his strained relationship with his ex-wife Olivia (again, fictional), Massive Talent seems to steer intentionally into conventional, family-friendly adjacent territory despite some dark and dodgy moments of violence, a flood of F-bombs, suggested drug use and scant sexual references, in order to let it squeak by with a 14A rating. No lie, there are times when, despite laughing I couldn’t help feeling that I was watching Cage channel his best Get Smart Steve Carell, as opposed to an actor struggling with a humorous existential crisis.
To Massive Talent’s credit, Cage gets some stellar comedic support from his fellow cast members. Pedro Pascal’s Javi is adorable as Cage’s newfound best friend, and while a couple of the best gags between him and Cage fall completely flat due to some poor framing and editing, audiences will still find themselves rooting for their middle-age bromance to succeed. Meanwhile, Sharon Horgan is flawless as Nick’s fed-up but still caring ex-wife Olivia, whose stunned reactions to his self-absorbed notions of fatherhood are priceless. Neil Patrick Harris’s role as the cynically aloof, numbers-focused Hollywood agent Richard Fink is the perfect foil to Nick’s overinflated vanity, and it’s a shame there isn’t more of him in the film overall. And what else is there to be said about Nicky Cage? Apparently, he’s a great kisser.
In the end, I came away from Massive Talent disappointed that Massive Talent really doesn’t push the Nicolas Cage meta-envelope as much as I hoped it would. The idea that its rather tame 14A-rated content will technically make it easier for parents to drag their young teenagers to the theatre (much like Nick Cage forcing his daughter Addy to watch his favourite films) and potentially introduce the works of Nicholas Cage to a whole new generation of fans really can’t get any more meta when you think about it.
There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that this is Gormican and Cage’s main intent; to deliver a crowd-pleasing film that brings in decent box-office dollars but also grants added exposure for Cage’s past and future films to young people who are just around the age group where his “out-there” brand is potentially cool and impressionable. And who am I to stand in the way of a Nick Cage win?