I would suspect that a fair number of reviews will compare the new Nicolas Cage meta-action-comedy The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent to Being John Malkovich, and that scans; though more than twenty years old, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s gonzo comedy remains the gold standards for movie stars playing themselves, and sending themselves up. But had Malkovich passed on the project (and there was some concern he would), Kaufman could’ve rewritten the role for any number of weirdo character actors of a certain age (Being Christopher Walken, anyone?). Unbearable Weight bears a closer resemblance to JCVD, the wonderful 2008 film that Jean Claude Van Damme made in his homeland of Belgium, playing himself as a financially strapped, worn-out action star expending his energy on increasingly dire projects.
That film could’ve only been made with Van Damme, and Unbearable Weight could’ve only been made with Cage – not just for the specific shout-outs to his weird career, but for the kind of gonzo presence he’s cultivated on-screen and off. We first meet him at a casual lunch meeting with a director he hopes to work with, and the way he escalates their goodbye into a full-on, desperate, on-the-spot audition is both very funny and very sad. Driving off, he has one of several conversations with his younger self (also played by Cage, via not-terribly-good de-aging technology), who chastises him for not making “movie star choices.” The screenplay, by Kevin Ettan and director Tom Gormican, works in the financial, professional, and personal woes that have defined Cage (at least in the tabloids) for the past several years, but you don’t have to be Nicolas Cage to know how hard it is to hear your ex-wife say, “I need you to get your shit together.”
His agent (Neil Patrick Harris, ideally cast) brings him an unusual offer: wealthy super-fan Javi (Pedro Pascal) is offering a million dollars for Cage to come to his mansion in Spain and hang out for Javi’s birthday weekend. On his way there, Cage is spotted by a pair of feds (Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz, re-teaming after The Oath and doing some exquisite back-and-forth work), who are convinced that Javi is the criminal mastermind behind a high-profile kidnapping, so they put the actor to work. (He’s resistant at first, of course, but soon sees this as the role of a lifetime.) The spy shenanigans that ensue are goofy but funny, and a welcome chance for him to do some first-rate physical comedy.
But that’s the window dressing; we’re all there for the meta-movie stuff, and Ettan and Gormican’s screenplay not only name-checks the expected IMDb highlights (Face-Off, National Treasure, Gone in 60 Seconds) but long-forgotten titles like Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (“Underrated, for sure”) and Guarding Tess, the hilariously unexpected topic of a big, emotional monologue. There’s also fun to be had in Cage and Javi’s attempt to write a screenplay together, which begins with all sorts of idealistic notions about character-driven, grown-up drama before degenerating into, of course, another action blockbuster.
The lengthy climactic section is a bit overstuffed; by that point, there is so much the filmmakers want to do, so many callbacks to make and elements to play out, that it grows a little wearying. And one does wishes the filmmakers would have recalibrated the meta-movie stuff once the potency of Pascal and Cage’s chemistry became clear; after a certain point, the references begin to play like a joke that’s gone on too long, like Ettan and Gormican are just a little too pleased with themselves. But Unbearable Weight mostly works, thanks in no small part to the admirably game Pascal – he’s an underrated comic actor, as seen in a great little set piece with a wall climb on LSD, and a silly scene where he and Cage trade shoes (don’t ask). And, of course, Cage is magnificent, doing that specific thing that only he can do, of making his characters (even himself) both credibly grounded and absolutely bugfuck operatic. It’s a fun movie, and the valentine he deserves.
“The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is in theaters Friday.