The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (Long Take)

In The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (or Unbearable for short) presents, actor Nicolas Cage stars as Nicolas Cage, a well-known but struggling actor who is desperate to land his next breakthrough role.   The character Cage portrays is not actually himself, however, but a version of himself that plays on our collective media awareness of him, both as an actor and celebrity.  This type of “meta acting” pops up every now and then in movies and television series.  Recent examples include Being John Malkovich (with Mr. Malkovich “as himself”), Harold & Kumar go to White Castle (Neal Patrick Harris), The Trip (Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon), This is The End (Seth Rogan, James Franco et al).  In these and other examples, the actors involved get to have a bit of fun tweaking their public in for laughs at their expense.  How funny the exercise is for the audience is directly proportional to how far the actor is willing to be skewered for the sake of entertainment.  In this particular movie, I found the return to be modest.

The movie opens with a young Spanish-speaking couple watching the end of Con Air.  At the moment Cage’s character gives his daughter a singed stuffed bunny, masked assailants break into the apartment, kill the girl’s boyfriend and kidnap the girl.  (What this is all about will be revealed shortly.)

The movie segues to Nicolas Cage driving to a meeting with a director (unnamed but actually David Gordon Green) at the Chateau Marmont.  Cage really wants the part in the director’s movie (a breakthrough role!), selling himself with his trademark intensity.  While the director is waiting for his car, Cage reveals he’s been working on a Boston accent for the role and asks if the director wants him to read for the role.  After some hemming and hawing, Cage does an impromptu reading, even though the director says it isn’t necessary.  If you didn’t realize just how much Cage wants that breakthrough role, well…

Shortly afterwards, Cage attends therapy with his daughter Addy (Lily Sheen, not one of Cage’s actual children).  Addy is frustrated with her father because he insists on impressing his cinematic tastes on her.  For example, he loves The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), while she definitely does not.  Instead of Cage listening to and respecting her opinion, he uses the topic as a reason for him to go off on how excellent it is.  (There’s that trademark intensity again.)

Cage drops his daughter off at the home of his ex-wife Olivia (Sharon Horgan, not one of Cage’s actual ex-wives).  Like her daughter, Olivia is also exasperated by Cage.  For her it’s his intense focus on his work.  She serves notice that he absolutely must be back in time for Addy’s birthday party that evening.  Cage visits his agent Richard Fink (Neil Patrick Harris) who tells him about an offer from a wealthy fan.  This uber-Cageaholic will pay one million dollars for Cage to attend his birthday party in Spain.  Fink says it’s a good opportunity, since Cage is drowning in debt, another allusion to our media awareness of Cage’s personal life.  Cage brushes it off because he’s confident he will get the part he auditioned for earlier.  While driving home, Cage has a discussion with a younger, wilder version of himself, who tells him to be more strategic in his acting choices.

Back at home, Cage receives word from his agent that he didn’t get the part.  He proceeds to get drunk and proceeds to belt out a song he wrote for Addy, embarrassing her and himself in the process.  Olivia drives Cage back to his hotel, telling him that he needs to get his act together.  The universe apparently agrees with her, as Cage finds himself locked out of his room.  Cage calls Fink and ruefully accepts the offer.

In Spain, Cage mistakes his wealthy benefactor Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal) for a hired hand.   After arriving at Javi’s massive (and impressive) estate, Cage reveals that he’s retiring from acting.  Distraught over Cage’s revelation, Javi insists on taking him to his favorite place.  Once there, Javi play-acts with Cage, pretending the two are on the run from bad guys and must jump off of the cliff to escape.  Cage goes along, and the adrenaline rush snaps him out of his mood.  Back at Javi’s estate, Cage engages him on his favorite topic: cinema.  Cage wants to know Javi’s three favorite movies.  Face/Off is first (much obliged), followed by Dr. Caligari (me too!) and Paddington 2 (what?).  Of course, Javi plays the movie for Cage and he’s quickly reduced to tears.

CIA agents Vivian (Tiffany Haddish) and Martin (Ike Barinholtz) have been watching Cage and nab him off the street.  They tell him that they believe that Javi kidnapped the president’s daughter and is threatening to kill her if the president runs for reelection.  (This is the same girl who was abducted in the beginning.)  When the agents bring up Cage’s own daughter, he reluctantly agrees to help them.  His first assignment is bugging Javi’s security system.  Cage succeeds, but not before he accidentally drugs himself with a powerful sedative. (The bit was funnier when Tim Conway did it on the Carol Burnet show.)

Unable to locate the president’s daughter, the agents ask Cage to extend his stay so that he can continue spying on Javi for them.  During Javi’s birthday party, Cage announces he will write a screenplay with Javi, who is ecstatic.  The next day, the two discuss their shared dislike for talky buddy comedies, which is funny because that’s kinda what this movie is.  Javi convinces Cage to drop acid before they drive into town, and Javi drives very well while stoned.  Feeling paranoid about strangers sitting nearby, they improvise an emotional scene involving a wall for their screenplay.  The movie doesn’t have too many laugh-out-loud moments, but this is one of them.

The agents prod Cage to enter a secured room on Javi’s estate where they believe the president’s daughter is being held.  Javi catches Cage trying to break into the room and nervously lets him in.  The room is actually Javi’s shrine to Cage, packed with memorabilia from his movies.  (It’s a funny bit that could have been funnier.)  

With no leads on where the girl is being hidden and time running out, the agents insist on Cage introducing a kidnapping plot device into their screenplay.  They believe it will force Javi to reveal his hand.  Instead, Javi flies Olivia and Addy to Spain, as a way of providing Cage with the opportunity to explain himself.  Satisfied that Cage has had a breakthrough with his family, Javi meets with his brother Lucas (Paco León), who reveals himself to be the actual kidnapper over a bowl of fruit loops.  Lucas insists that Javi kill Cage or be killed himself.  

The last act is devoted to Cage rescuing both his daughter and the president’s daughter from Lucas and his armed guards and driving them to the American Embassy.  It’s a riff on the big-budget action movies Cage used to do, and if you remember the movie Adaptation (2002), it feels like it was written by Donald Kaufman.  I don’t want to spoil it any more than I already have because it’s the best act of the three.  

Structurally, Unbearable is a standard three-act movie, where each act has its own particular narrative focus and style.  The first act provides a portrait of Cage as an actor in desperate need of a  breakthrough part.  Cage’s acting in this act is reminiscent of his ultra-hyper persona from National Treasure.  (He comes off as having downed a Red Bull before the director says “action”.)  This act references several aspects of Cage’s media personality, namely his intensity, how hard he works, his obsessive love of cinema, his drinking and his debts.  If you’re thinking, “Hey, what about all of the other stuff I’ve heard about Cage over the years,” I’ll get to that.

I’m sure the last thing Cage wants to discuss is his personal foibles, let alone have them be subject matter for a movie about him in which he stars as himself.  I give him credit for willingly allowing himself to be picked on like this for everyone to see.  However, the movie attacks its subject with kid gloves, satisfied that it has made Cage slightly uncomfortable.  Getting a star like Cage to agree to let himself be poked like he is in this movie may have been a coup, but the approach is much too respectful for any of it to result in more than a smile or a knowing chuckle.

Other topics about Cage that would have been low-hanging fruit for ridicule or at the very least some good natured jibes are never mentioned.  There’s his obsession with Elvis, and how it found its way into Wild at Heart and his own marriage to Lisa Marie Presley.  Or his obsession with Superman, which led to him naming a son Kal-El.  Or his five marriages.  Or his wild spending spree on real estate, including “The LaLaurie House” in New Orleans, nicknamed the “Most Haunted House in America”.  Disappointingly, none of those topics are broached.  

The subject of Cage having issues with his ex-wife and daughter is well-trodden movie territory, another instance of an overworked dad who focuses on his career at the expense of his family.  The movie certainly would have benefited by having one of Cage’s actual ex-wives or children play those roles instead of actors in fictional roles, but that probably would have been asking too much.

The first act also focuses on showing Cage “playing the game”, desperately trying to land a part that he believes will change his fortunes.  Cage overdoes it during a meeting with a director, spends hours talking with his agent and goes to therapy.  This material could have been fodder for a satire of Hollywood denizens like Altman’s The Player, but it’s mainly perfunctory and observational.  The second act is like a lot of buddy comedies, where one person wants to be friends while the other doesn’t like and/or trust the other.  The joke about Padding 2 is a good one, and Cage and Pascal have good rapport, but if it weren’t for Pascal’s goofy-yet-genial characterization this material would fall flat.

Unbearable is an acutely self-aware movie.  During the second act Cage and Javi agree that they dislike movies where two people just sit around and talk, which is exactly what Unbearable has turned into.  I was fine with it, because Cage is always an interesting presence to watch on screen and Pascal impressed me with how good he is with the right material.  (I’m convinced  he wasn’t bad in WW84, just miscast.)  However, the filmmakers must have suspected that Cage and Javi’s odd couple routine would only go so far, so they jettison it entirely and transition to a satire of a Nick Cage big-budget action movie for the third act.

I really enjoyed the third act, and wished that the entire movie had gone this route.  Cage has a way of making extreme material of all genres relatable, perhaps because he’s such a likeable, kind person at heart.  Or at least I think he is.  (I’ve never met the guy.)  His groovy, hangdog charm somehow meshes perfectly with the crazy action movies he’s been in, and the third act plays up that aspect of his career perfectly.

While I liked Unbearable, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated over all of its missed opportunities.  Of all of the choices it could have made, it settles on being a middling satire that will only appeal to Cage’s fans.  I’m fully aware that Cage probably wouldn’t have signed onto a movie that ruthlessly skewers him throughout, but spending so much time tentatively poking its subject is not very entertaining, especially when you consider how much Cage’s fans know about him going in.  The buddy comedy routine between Cage and Pascal is fine, but it is too light when it should go darker (or at least weirder).  The reluctant operative bit has also been done before and better, from The In-Laws (1979) to The Freshman (1990).  The movie doesn’t actually turn into the satire it promised to be until the third act, which is too late but satisfying.

When you have Cage on board to star in a movie about himself, I expected the movie to go full-on Cage and be a completely gonzo experience, but it’s not.  For example, why not have Cage star in a movie that is a satire of one of his well known movies?  Or have Cage confront not just Nicky but versions of himself from all of the phases of his career?  Each time the movie had a choice to make, it made the safest choice.  Instead of having Javi’s favorite be Face/Off (1997), it could have been something off-the-wall like Raising Arizona (1987) or Snake Eyes (1998).  Or instead of having Cage audition for an average criminal drama, how about forcing him to audition for Face/Off 2, with Travolta?  Cage hasn’t done a big-budget movie since The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010).  Does Hollywood now see Cage as such an oddball that they’d need to audition for a sequel to one of his own movies before they trust him with the intellectual property?  That would be a sharper piece of meta commentary than anything in this movie.

For a movie about an actor who’s been in over one hundred films, Unbearable barely acknowledges the volume and variety of his work.  It name-drops Cage’s films from his blockbuster period but nothing from his indie period.  It curiously never directly mentions the two roles where he received Academy award nominations, Leaving Las Vegas (1995) or Adaptation (2002).  It never mentions all of the movies from his straight-to-video period.  The only recent films I remember being mentioned were Mandy (2018) and Croods 2 (2020).  Cage does repeat a line from The Wicker Man (2006), for what it’s worth.  My point is that if you haven’t been following Cage’s career, you would easily think he’d been in only ten movies after watching Unbearable.

Speaking of which, Cage is one of the few actors who deserves a comprehensive career examination.  I would gladly pay to watch Cage sit in a chair and listen to him answer questions about some of the noteworthy (and notorious) roles from his career.  For example, I would love to hear his take on making the soft-core Zandalee (1991).  And who’s idea was it that Johnny Blaze (a.k.a. Ghost Rider, 2007) loved eating jelly beans from a goblet.  And what he thought of the philosophy behind Knowing (2009)  And why, if he cares as much as he says he does about every movie he appears in, why does he look so bored in the bad ones (ex: Bangkok Dangerous, 2008)?  This could easily be a ten-episode series on a streaming channel.  I don’t know what the market would be for something like this, but if his fans turn out for Unbearable, they certainly would watch this.

For some reason, I can’t shake the feeling that Cage agreed to do Unbearable to preemptively answer questions Hollywood producers may have with giving Cage a leading role on a big-budget project.  They would have to be well aware of his c.v. over the last twenty years:  good work in several small independent films, dabbled in horror, voice work in a few animated features, but mostly a lot of forgettable straight-to-video stuff.  Unbearable should assuage any lingering concerns, though.  Yes, he’s still handsome.  Yes, he’s still in shape.  No, he doesn’t take himself seriously.  Yes, he can handle comedy and action sequences as well as he did before.  In other words, Cage is ready and willing to resume working in feature films with a healthy budget.  I hear Travolta’s career is also in need of a restart.  Face/Off 2, anyone?

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