Young moviegoers today might have no idea that Nicolas Cage won an Oscar almost three decades ago for playing a suicidal alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas. They may have seen some of his early action blockbusters like The Rock or Face/Off, but it’s likelier that they know him best from two more recent franchises: National Treasure and Ghost Rider. That Cage cinematic history, and his identity as an action star known for dramatically spouting sometimes laughable dialogue, is key to The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, a funny send-up of the assumptions people make about an actor like Cage.
Cage plays a version of himself, one desperate for a big comeback who is prone to engaging in conversations with a much younger Cage where he insists that said comeback doesn’t mean that he “ever left.” Having to read for roles that he doesn’t get and embarrassing himself at his teenage daughter’s sweet sixteen lead him to reluctantly accept a high-paying gig on a beautiful Spanish island, where he is courted to star in a script written by billionaire Javi Guttierez (Pedro Pescal). And because this is a Cage flick, there’s an action element: the CIA needs his help in finding a kidnapped girl they believe Guttierez has taken.
This premise works well because it’s not always clear whether the audience is supposed to laugh or take the events playing out on screen at face value. While that could be a recipe for disaster, in this case it’s a wondrous success, an enthralling and entertaining experience that works on both levels. Other characters in the film, aside from his daughter (Lily Sheen) and ex-wife (Sharon Horgan), aren’t in on the joke that Cage is supposed to be washed-up and hopeless, and instead they all revel in his celebrity, particularly Javi, who is his number one fan and wants nothing more than his best friend.
Elements of the subplot that casts Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz, a terrific comedy duo seen earlier this year on Apple TV+’s The Afterparty, as Cage’s CIA handlers are playful and riddled with plot holes, but that’s in service of the idea that action movies are often enhanced by their mindlessness. This is, at its heart, a story of friendship, one that develops between Cage and Guttierez, borne out of a transactional relationship but molded by two people feeling a similar sense of not really being seen by others who want them to be something that they’re not.
As its title suggests, Cage is indeed talented, and what’s better is that he knows what he can and can’t do. He’s very much up for poking fun at himself here, and when he gets to be excessive, particularly in his younger form that shows up to alternately taunt and amp up his present-day self, it’s great fun. One of the best things to come out of this movie is a renewed look at Cage’s career, which also includes superb performances in films like Adaptation and underappreciated recent entries like Joe or last year’s Pig. Here, he’s not playing the definitive Cage here but rather the one that his role choices would suggest, and this pick cements him as someone capable of tremendous rage and self-reflection, which isn’t easy and certainly carries its share of risks.
Defining The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent as a comedy is its terrific ensemble, led by Pascal, an actor who doesn’t tend to muster up much enthusiasm in his title role on The Mandalorian but who here demonstrates such generous energy that it’s a joy to watch him. Haddish and Barinholtz play their parts well, but it’s Sheen and Horgan who have particularly fantastic chemistry with Cage, reacting to his irritating tendencies and expressing their sarcastic frustrations just as he’s finally starting to put effort in. More than anything, this film is a lot of fun, an experience best enjoyed with a laughter-filled audience.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent opens in theaters everywhere on Friday, April 22nd.