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20 April 2022

How Nicolas Cage embraced self-parody

In The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, a satirical take on action films, the Hollywood legend plays himself – twice.

By David Sexton

A confession. When I was young and high-minded, it never occurred to me that the main reason people went to the movies was to watch their favourite stars. I thought the draw was the story, how it was made, what it meant, even.

I tended not to recognise actors from one film to another, believing in their characters instead. A friend gently put me right. Audiences mostly went to see their crushes, she explained. This I could just about accept, but I had trouble crediting what she told me next: that what these fans relished most of all was spotting links between the films and the real lives of their stars. This I found difficult to believe – like the elderly judge who, having asked to have it explained to him what exactly oral sex was, responded by saying, “If this is really true, I am glad I do not have much longer left to live.”

Well, I know better now. And if I ever forget it, here’s my reminder: The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. Nicolas Cage here plays himself, twice: at the age he is now, coming up for 60; and, thanks to rejuvenation tech and body doubles, the zany “Nicky” of his mid-twenties, when he made Wild at Heart and went on the Wogan show off his head. The young Cage upbraids the old one for accepting he’s just a jobbing actor, shouting, “No, you’re a f***ing movie star!”, reappearing intermittently to urge him on, but this rather feeble device is abandoned in the end.

[See also: The meaning of Taxi Driver]

The present-day Nicolas Cage is down on his luck, his career stalled, owing the hotel he is living in $600,000, despised for his vanity by his teenage daughter (Lily Sheen, daughter of Michael Sheen and Kate Beckinsale) and intransigent ex-wife (Sharon Horgan). After an embarrassing failure to get another action role, his agent tells him that he’s been offered $1m to make a personal appearance at a rich fan’s birthday party in Majorca. Initially reluctant to perform as “a trained seal”, Nic decides he’ll do it to pay the bills – as long as he doesn’t have to “suck [the fan’s] dick or f*** his wife” – then will quit acting altogether.

So off he goes to the fan’s grandiose villa, participating as little as possible. Javi (Pedro Pascal), supposedly an olive oil tycoon, turns out to be just Cage’s type of film buff though, and they start to bond bromantically, drinking and dropping acid together, even collaborating on an improvised script for their adventures. But Cage is contacted by a CIA agent (Tiffany Haddish) and told that Javi is actually a mafia boss who has kidnapped “the president of Catalonia’s daughter” (she’s another huge Cage fan) and Cage needs to spy on his host to find out where she is.

Luckily, Javi has built a Nicolas Cage memorabilia room, boasting such treasures as the golden guns from Face/Off, so when Cage starts to draw on his classic action roles, he has the props to hand. The second half of the film rolls out into a bog-standard shoot-’em-up kidnap action movie, with wild car chases and operatic confrontations – the perhaps rather scornful assumption being that this is what audiences demand to see, no matter how ridiculous or spoofy the pretext.

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[See also: With Benedetta, Paul Verhoeven proves he is as outrageous and iconoclastic as ever]

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent was written by Tom Gornican and Kevin Etten on spec without Cage’s knowledge and he was at first reluctant to become involved, turning it down repeatedly, saying he had no wish to play himself. Then, having taken the job, he said he would never see the film – but now, being also the producer, he has changed his mind and is proud of it, saying, “This was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done in my entire body of work.”

It jokingly references his best-known movies throughout, from Leaving Las Vegas to Gone in 60 Seconds, and Cage obligingly parodies himself too. “I could always trust my shamanic instincts as a thespian,” he suggests at a difficult moment. But it inevitably alludes to his personal life as well: the financial crashes, the marital complications, his embrace of himself as “a legend”. Cage knows that, having been thoroughly memefied, he doesn’t own his story any more. “Fans created this other persona that has a life of its own. It’s like Frankenstein’s monster, and I’m playing with that,” Cage said. But he gave them plenty to work with.

“I’m Nicolas f***ing Cage!” he screams twice (holding the “f***ing” for a preposterous amount of time, in homage to a scene in Face/Off). He is, and he isn’t. Cage’s fans will revel in this film. Others may hope that going so very meta-meta might mark some kind of end-point for this cult.

[See also: The Bubble signals the onset of the pandemic blockbuster]

“The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is in cinemas from 22 April

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This article appears in the 20 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Law and Disorder