The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a movie so sure of itself that while it wasn’t what I was expecting, I couldn’t help loving every minute of it. It walks with the ease of an Elaine May comedy swaddled in a blanket of adoration for one of the most fascinating actors working today. At times it was hard to believe this wasn’t an early Charlie Kauffman film.
Tom Gormican’s movie is a love letter not just to Nicholas Cage but to the notion of movies as an art form that can save our souls; despite all the trappings of pop culture. Gormican’s script, which he co-wrote with Kevin Etten, is about Nic Cage but not really. Much like Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent dissects, opines, and pays tributes to the business and the often ignoble act of making movies. The movie trafficks in verisimilitude masquerading as truth but does so with its tongue in cheek.
Cage isn’t playing himself so much as a caricature of how the press often presents him and how we, as the audience, imagine him to be. It is often said the most challenging role for any actor to play is himself. Here Cage is playing not only himself but also the perception of himself and the Gormican and Etten’s idea of himself.
The Nic Cage of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is an earnest, intense, nervous man riddled by a lifetime of being in the public eye and has begun to lose himself in himself. He’s even started to hallucinate a younger version of himself, a hyper-active, ambitious version with blonde hair, a snarl on his face, who is at once his biggest cheerleader and harshest critic. A lesser movie would have played it for laughs or played it for straight drama; The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent does both.
It’s a tightwire act that they pull off by never leaning too heavily on the fact that Cage is arguing with himself for parts of the film instead of playing it one way or the other. It is funny that Nic Cage hallucinates a version of himself that embodies the angel and devil on his shoulder, but it is also sad. More than anything, it becomes apparent that Nic Cage can’t seem to express himself in a way that his loved ones can understand despite being a great actor.
He’s pushing away his daughter Addy (Lily Sheen) by trying to bond with her through things he loves and not through what she loves. His inability to communicate and try too hard to overcompensate is the cause of his fractured relationship with his ex-wife Olivia (Sharon Horgan). Nic Cage is in free fall, and he can’t understand how it all went wrong.
Then he gets a job offer, a million dollars to go to Javi’s (Pedro Pascal) birthday party. At first, he’s insulted, but mounting debts and the heartbreak of losing a part he badly wanted, mixed with his daughter’s anger at him for getting drunk at her birthday party, give him second thoughts. Pascal’s Javi, it turns out, is also a cartel boss. At least according to CIA agents Vivian (Tiffany Haddish) and Martin (Ike Barinholtz).
It’s here where Gormican and Etten’s script begins to show its shrewdness. Still, after the introduction of Javi being a cartel boss and his possible connection to the kidnapping of a politician’s daughter, I began to worry the movie might get bogged down in the scourge of modern cinema-plot. So many movies, today, superhero or otherwise, get lost in the convolutions of their plots. They forget about the story and the characters. But just as I was beginning to fear the same fate for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, it surprised me having Vivian and Cage had that very discussion about under the guise of discussing Cage could trick Javi into revealing the location of the kidnapped girl.
Gormican and Etten are using all of this to demonstrate what an absolutely mind-bending absurd idea the business of making movies is. I remember reading somewhere that a producer said you have to love this business to be in it because there are easier ways to make money. Making movies is so hard that it seems almost an exaggerated complaint to try and compare it to being an agent for the CIA undercover to try and take down a man you begin to realize is your spiritual twin brother.
Except, it’s not that much of an exaggeration. Ron Howard once said about making movies, “Every movie you make ultimately finds a way to breaking your heart.” Compromises must be made, and hard decisions are never as creatively driven as you’d hope. The Unbearable of Massive Talent understands that and, understandably, is both understanding and outraged by this accepted truth.
Cage and Pascal are the fuel of the movie, keeping the engine of the plot running. Their friendship is the core of every dramatic beat and the center of every comedic moment. Part of the genius of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is that it quickly shows the two men bonding but never in a way that feels rushed. Yes, it happens quicker than you’d think, but this isn’t real life. That’s not actually Nic Cage, and that woman playing his ex-wife is not his real ex-wife.
But it is real because that is Nic Cage playing Nic Cage, as only Nic Cage could. Cage plays himself as if he’s always two steps away from a nervous breakdown. He never seems aware of this fact, but it is evident that everyone around him is legitimately worried about it.
Pascal’s Javi is a star-struck fan who has everything, but like everyone in movies like The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, what he really wants to make movies. The scenes where Javi and Cage brainstorm together are some of the film’s highlights. One scene has the two tripping acid, and the film doesn’t go into cliche trippy visuals. Instead, it plays it very low key, allowing Pascal and Cage to milk the comedy from the situations.
The jokes in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent range from insider baseball, a satire of the craft, and plain slapstick. One of my favorites involves Cage accidentally drugging himself while Agent Vivian and Martin sit in their control room watching helplessly as he fumbles about trying to fight off the effects of the drug. Finally, Cage passes out, and when everything else fails, Vivian yells out, “Action!”
Nigel Bluck has the difficult job of figuring out how exactly to shoot this without being bland or too distracting visually. Bluck lands on a polished invisible style with flashes of cinematic grandeur, such as a couple of scene transitions. He’s trying to shoot a high-concept comedy, and if poorly done, it can dilute both the concept and the humor.
Bluck and Gormican understand how to let a joke play out and exercise quick timing while also displaying patience in allowing a gag to play out. It takes a great deal of confidence for a director to realize that sometimes the funniest thing is two people looking at each other.
He does such an excellent job that when the movie transitions into a film about the movie’s events, it becomes glaringly and comedically obvious. With Demi Moore playing Nic Cage’s wife and Anna MacDonald as Addy, Bluck’s camera turns into a stylized riff on early Micahel Bay films.
The whole ordeal of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is tricky, and it somehow miraculously never makes a wrong step. The plot is addressed just enough to keep things moving, the tone is somehow always consistent, and I found myself happy that Nic Cage was finally content. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to call it a masterpiece, but it is a movie that I can’t stop thinking about, and that’s just as good, if not better.
I mean how could you not love a movie that recognizes the cinematic brilliance of Paddington 2?
Images courtesy of Lionsgate
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