Review: ‘The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent’ spectacularly smashes the fourth wall
Plenty of famous Hollywood faces have played themselves on the big and small screens before, but it goes without saying that there’s never been an actor quite like Nicolas Cage. With that in mind, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a movie that simply wouldn’t have worked with anyone else in the lead, not least of all because few top talents would be able to leave their ego firmly at the door and embrace the unbridled self-aware insanity of Tom Gormican’s bonkers meta action comedy.
Cage is the cinematic equivalent of a mystery wrapped in an enigma, who remains shrouded by his own unique levels of mystique; he’s an Academy Award winner that’s been lauded by many of his peers and contemporaries as an all-time great, but he’s also slummed it through a succession of banal VOD thrillers.
He was one of the biggest box office draws in the business at the peak of his powers, but also a relentless source of fascination and memes, with his signature and bespoke performative style making him the butt of as many jokes as he has been the subject of overwhelmingly enthusiastic acclaim.
Cage knows this, and admitted that The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent was the ideal opportunity to embrace it. The screenplay from Gormican and co-writer Kevin Etten is fully cognizant of the leading man’s life and times, as well as his ups and downs, using it to the fullest by dropping the semi-fictionalized Nick Cage into a zany story of birthday parties, newfound friendships, drug cartels, kidnappings, family drama, the CIA, and so much more.
After missing out on a role in David Gordon Green’s new project by overzealously monologuing in a thick Boston accent, Neil Patrick Harris’ agent Richard Fink outlines in no uncertain terms that Cage is in mountains of debt and short on options. Throw in the strained relationship with Sharon Horgan’s soon-to-be ex-wife Olivia, not to mention the growing distance from Lily Sheen’s daughter Addy, Nick finds himself in the midst of a personal, professional, and existential crisis.
That’s without mentioning the fact he’s haunted by the ghost of Nicky, a younger and power-hungry hallucination of himself that urges Nick to stop focusing on being an actor, and reclaim his place as an A-list movie star. They talk, they argue, and they even make out at one stage, because that’s the sort of offbeat idiosyncrasies we’re conditioned to expect from the first minute.
Accepting the million-dollar offer of Pedro Pascal’s Javi Gutierez, Nick finds himself accosted by Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz’s federal agents, who task the action hero to go undercover on a special assignment to help them crack a high-profile abduction, but Cage soon finds himself developing a genuine bromance with Pascal’s superfan, which is cemented over a screening of Paddington 2.
The bulk of that setup is packed into the first act of Massive Talent, but once the lay of the land has been established, things escalate into fantastically outlandish territory. You don’t have to be a Cage enthusiast on the scale of Javi to appreciate the film, with most of the wink-wink references relegated to name-drops of popular titles, or Cage resolutely affirming the underrated status of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or Guarding Tess.
Instead of playing the premise for the broadest of laughs, the best moments of Massive Talent come from Cage looking inward, while still reflecting on his storied legacy. He repeatedly insists that it’s not a comeback because he never went away, he just needs the right part to help him cement his credentials once again. The fact this particular project puts the exclamation point on exactly that only serves to add another coincidentally brilliant wrinkle to the entire operation.
Similarly, while it would have been easy for Cage to go as broad as possible in his performance (which he admittedly does at points, although it’s done in the most pleasingly knowing fashion), he hits some emotional beats that you wouldn’t expect to find in such a wacky story. He acknowledges his weaknesses as an actor, father, husband, and friend, which is where the lines between Nicolas and Nick are at their most blurred.
It isn’t a one-man show by any stretch of the imagination, either, with Pascal proving to be an absolute hoot as Javi. An aspiring screenwriter hoping to make his personal and professional dreams come true with a single wave of his checkbook, he puts in just as much effort as his opposite number to ensure the heartwarming dynamic between the two leads remains the driving force of the narrative, which isn’t an easy thing to do when Massive Talent was always going to be The Nicolas Cage Show first and foremost.
Despite Cage’s initial skepticism at being a hired party guest, he and Javi develop an instant chemistry that carries the narrative and storytelling load. They jump off cliffs, drive around the picturesque Spanish coastline, get high on LSD and freak out, help each other become better and more understanding men, declare their love for each other, and get involved in shootouts, fistfights, and car chases. The two of them hold nothing back, whether it’s the quiet and intimate moments or the bravura blockbuster shenanigans plastered all over the marketing, with Pascal’s penchant for understated comedy adding yet another impressive weapon to his expanding arsenal.
The weakest part of Massive Talent by far is the third act, which isn’t all that much of a surprise when it abandons the decidedly deep and thought-provoking examination of who both audiences and Nick think he really is, in favor of standard action comedy beats that don’t bring anything new to the table other than nefarious forces making constant references to the absurdity of a famous actor being involved. It isn’t a coincidence that the story sags when nuance and authenticity are abandoned in favor of spectacle, but it’s a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent genre-bending celebration of all things Cage.
Nicolas Cage the actor playing Nick Cage the fictional creation, who in turn is haunted by the specter of Nicky Cage in a film that meditates and ruminates on the past, present, and future of both the real and fictional Cage under the guise of an action comedy that ultimately ends with Nick Cage watching Nicolas Cage in an in-universe movie about the adventure Nick Cage has just experienced is enough to make your head spin if you think about it for too long, but The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent delivers an adrenaline rush of sheer joy that’s destined to enjoy a long-lasting life as a stone-cold cult classic, not to mention one of the bravest, boldest, and cleverest things the star has ever done.
Nicolas Cage brilliantly embraces, mocks, and subverts his own legacy in an ingeniously demented action comedy that celebrates one of Hollywood's most uniquely fascinating stars.