Oh, the burden of being a tortured artist is immense. The torture doesn’t come from the outside world but from within – the need for your artistry to be the center of attention at all times. It’s a suffocating form of narcissism, and it’s exactly the archetype fit to be portrayed by Nicolas Cage. The veteran actor is a superstar with a wide range of accolades – an Academy Award, a litany of blockbuster smash hits, and a treasure trove of the type of bizarre performances and obscure movies that often send film Twitter into a frenzy. But in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, Cage’s unique acting oeuvre is put to the test in a caper that challenges his obsession to be great at all times.
Cage stars as… well, Nicolas Cage, a world-famous movie star. But Cage, despite all his rapturous success, is at a crossroads. He tries and fails to nail a role in the latest David Gordon Green movie, mostly because his shitty Boston accent proves to be an ill fit for the role he pursues. Meanwhile, his home life is a mess as he fails to connect with his fictional daughter Addy (Lily Mo Sheen, daughter of Kate Beckinsale and Michael Sheen in a bit of meta casting). His idea of connecting with his daughter is showing her the brilliance of cinema within The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920… yes, that movie came out in fucking 1920!). Predictably, she’s unimpressed with German expressionist films from literally 100 years ago and feels suffocated by her father’s need to mold her into a clone that shares all of his interests.
But Sir Nicolas is too caught up in his stalling career to consider his daughter’s feelings, constantly looking for what’s next. Finally, things get so dire that he’s forced to accept his agent Richard’s (Neil Patrick Harris) proposal to appear at the birthday party of a superfan, Javi (Pedro Pascal), in exchange for $1 million. Javi is an obsessed nerd on all things Nic Cage, his favorite movie being Face/Off (1997). Interestingly, one of Javi’s favorite movies is also The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But as the destination birthday progresses, Cage gets wrapped up in a CIA investigation that may pin Javi as a person of interest in a massive scheme. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds, and that’s a job… for Nic Cage.
Massive Talent is essentially a slapstick comedy that, at times, attempts to delve into the psyche that goes into intense artistry but mostly comes up short on that second thing. We don’t exactly find out why Nic Cage is so obsessed with displaying his talent for the world to see, given the lifetime of success he’s already absorbed, so we’re meant to infer it as a form of narcissism mostly. One of the movie’s funnier recurring gags is seeing present-day Cage converse with an imaginary, de-aged Cage.
The younger Nic is way more intense, probably from an era in Hollywood where cocaine was much more rampant, and is constantly forced to give has-been Cage a much-needed pep talk. But Cage’s need for love and acceptance begins to be satiated by a burgeoning friendship with Javi. They have the same taste in movies and begin to collab on a screenplay of their own, one that’s “for adults,” unlike “those Marvel movies.” However, Cage also stipulates along the way that the script must incorporate an action-oriented subplot in order to bring in a broad audience. So much for those “adult” movies. Maybe we shouldn’t pretend this idea is of elevated importance to a Marvel movie.
The movie as a whole is a tale of two genres. First, there’s the character-centered comedy portion which is what works here, pitching Cage as a Bojack Horseman-Esque fading star whose outsized personality is met with indignation by some but finds a home within Javi’s admirable bromance. Unfortunately, the second movie, an action-comedy about a criminal syndicate being investigated by a couple of CIA operatives (Tiffany Haddish, Ike Barinholtz), isn’t as successful.
It’s a riff on Nic Cage’s 90s action movie persona, appropriating a type of 90s action film where the hero must rescue some kidnapped damsel (often the daughter of a powerful man) from a simultaneously violent and incompetent group of hooligans. Annnnd that part of the story just isn’t that funny or engaging. Not only is the action far below the films Massive Talent is riffing on, but it often distracts from the buddy comedy between Cage and Javi, which makes up most of what’s actually interesting about the story.
The movie feels more satisfied with its “clever” premise rather than seeing that premise to its full potential. Hollywood has seen its fair share of meta movies about larger-than-life celebrities and their unique personas, from Bowfinger (1999) to Being John Malkovich (1999). Even the Nicolas Cage starring Adaptation adequately interrogated the mind of the artist, revealing some interesting truths about the psyche of the people who try to entertain us.
But Massive Talent is as surface level as it gets, sending Cage less on a journey of self-discovery and more of a macho action-adventure that somehow makes him more understanding of his daughter and ex-wife. The movie is an entertaining farce, but it’s disappointing it’s not interested in being more than that. Instead, it settles for familiar jokes about over-acting or taking LSD at inopportune times. Regardless, Massive Talent succeeds as a humorous parody of the idea of Nic Cage, even as the said movie seems afraid to interrogate what truly motivates the madness. The film sells itself as a peek behind the curtain, but it feels like just an extension of the play. I guess that’ll have to do.