In David Lynch’s delirious film Wild At Heart, Nicolas Cage’s character Sailor has a beloved snakeskin jacket that he always describes the same way. “Did I ever tell ya that this here jacket represents a symbol of my individuality, and my belief in personal freedom?” he trills. “About 50,000 times,” laughs his lover, played by Laura Dern. It’s terrific how we believe it each time Cage says it. We believe that he believes.
Cage’s absurdly varied filmography may itself be described as snakeskin: exotic and memorable, well-crafted yet tacky, defiantly tasteless, frequently glorious. The Academy Award winning actor has done it all — from Raising Arizona to Face/Off, Leaving Las Vegas to The Rock, Moonstruck to Mandy, from Bringing Out The Dead to National Treasure. He’s scaled the very different peaks of arthouse and action cinema, and, while one of the finest performers of his generation, has been in some of the trashiest films of his time. There isn’t much that can tie this oeuvre together, but — like the jacket — his work is distinctive and excessive.
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Tom Gormican’s The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent (now available for rent/purchase on Apple TV and YouTube Movies) celebrates the slithering superstar. It is a feature-length tribute to Nicolas Cage’s remarkable body of work, and applauds how Cage’s unchained conviction to every single character in every single movie has given us so many moments, so many memes, so many movies to connect with and hold dear. So many jackets.
In the film, Cage plays “Nick Cage” who — after years of out-decibelling himself from being taken seriously by good directors — has decided to quit acting. This is when he gets an offer from an olive oil baron called Javi (Pedro Pascal) to attend his birthday in Mallorca for a million dollars. Cage is in no mood to gladhand a Con-Air-quoting fan, but the two discover a unique kinship, laden with irony yet free of ironic distancing, as they discuss their love for cinema and bond over both The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari and Paddington 2.
“I can’t stand talkie comedies,” Cage tells Javi while they try to create a screenplay, “It’s gotta have plot to move it forward.” Thereafter things begin to go boom, and a CIA-druglord-kidnapping subplot makes Unbearable Weight feel less like the special deconstructive experience it is… and more like a typically unmemorable Cage action film. That shift in this genre-hopping comedy feels right, because a true toast to Cage’s cinema would not be complete without the clunkiness.
The greatest achievement of Gormican’s film, in fact, could be his refusal to judge any facet of Cage’s career. In a disarmingly tender scene, Javi talks about Guarding Tess — one of Cage’s cheesiest comedies — as a film that allowed him to connect with his dying father. Films mean different things to different people, and it is important to highlight Cage’s willingness to dive into all kinds of cinema. It’s highly touching — until Cage then starts solemnly explaining the motivations behind his Guarding Tess character.
The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent is a warning against self-seriousness. Cage strolls into a swimming pool, bottle in hand, in an echo of his iconic scene from Leaving Las Vegas, but where Elisabeth Shue dove in to kiss him, here comes Javi the superfan to pull him back to the surface. Javi’s artefact room, a shrine to Cage’s career, contains ‘radioactive pearls’ from The Rock, the chainsaw from Mandy, the crown Cage wore in Peggy Sue Got Married, the diaper from Raising Arizona… and a life-size waxwork of Cage as Castor Troy in Face/Off, holding the gold-plated pistols he carried in that film. “It’s grotesque,” says Cage, looking up at the statue, transfixed. “I’ll give you $20,000 for it.”
Nicky would approve. Nick Cage has a high-strung alter ego called Nicky, a leather-jacketed Cage (of Wild At Heart vintage) with floppy hair and passionate loathing for independent cinema. He’s the one talking up Cage, calling him a movie star not an actor, steering him away from playing “the gay uncle in the next Duplass Brothers movie.” Nicky is Cage unhinged, waxy and artificial, grinning a grin you may know more from memes than films. Then, classic Cage overkill: in an astonishing moment, Nicky smooches Nick. (This, also, feels right: who could possibly kiss Nicolas Cage better than Nicolas Cage?)
The Nick Cage of the film can run fast and drive hard, because the actor has often done his own stunt-work, but may be faltering as a father because he hasn’t played that role enough. “It’s just… there’s no script for parenting,” he whimpers. There is also no real precedent for a film like this, a film besotted with one actor’s myth-making. There are times I wished there was more stylisation, more of a directorial signature, but then this would be Shane Black’s Cage film or Edgar Wright’s Cage film, whereas Gormican — for better or worse — lets Unbearable Weight stay Nicolas Cage’s Cage film.
I’m reminded of Adaptation — arguably the best film about screenwriting — where Cage’s Charlie tells his identical twin how hard it is to script a film about flowers when there haven’t been any films about flowers. “What about Flowers For Algernon?” interrupts the contrarian twin, Donald. “Well, that’s not about flowers,” says the exasperated Charlie. “And it’s not a movie.” “Okay, I’m sorry,” says Donald, “I never saw it.”
I’ve never seen an actor like Nicolas Cage. When I was 16, I was obsessed with Face/Off — primarily because of Cage’s overpowering movie-star musk — and watched it so many times I had the opening credits memorised. Cage is an intoxicating, manic, unpredictable presence, forever refusing to play it straight. He has no rulebook — for saying a line or selecting a project. He takes up odd films, honing in on something weird that he may spin into something good. Sometimes this can be just one scene — or even one line — but he tucks in to make a meal of it. He is Nicolas Cage, and he could eat a peach for hours.
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Streaming tip of the week:
“We don’t pick the ballroom, says Nicolas Cage as Spider-Man Noir, “We just dance.” Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (Netflix) features Cage as a black-and-white version of the world’s favourite webslinger, and he’s a treat.
Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of ‘The Best Baker In The World’ (2017), a children’s adaptation of ‘The Godfather’.