What’s It’s Like to Watch 'The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent' After Spending a Couple of Years Thinking About Nicolas Cage
With a mix of excitement and dread, I finally caught up with a movie I've been thinking about for a long time.
On November 15, 2019, I was deep into researching my book Age of Cage: Four Decades of Hollywood Through One Singular Career when I received the news that made me step away from my laptop and wondered if I’d made a huge mistake. I conceived Age of Cage not as a Cage biography or a history of his film work but as a close look at his career with a special emphasis on his evolving image and the ways in which his filmography reflects changes in Hollywood since his 1982 debut in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. (Blink and you’ll miss him, but he’s in there, credited as “Nicolas Coppola.”) From a misfit ’80s star to winning Best Actor and becoming an action hero in the ‘90s to his decade in the VOD wilderness in the ’00s even as he was embraced, with varying degrees of irony, as a cult hero online, no one’s had a journey quite like Cage. And while there’s no shortage of writing about Cage, no one had taken this sort of big picture approach. That was all me!
The Google alert I had set for “Nicolas Cage,” however, suggested otherwise.
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The Hollywood Reporter broke the news with a piece headlined: "Nicolas Cage in Talks to Star as Nicolas Cage in Meta Drama ‘The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent’.” Here’s how they described the project:
“If the deals close, Cage would star as actor Nicolas Cage. The character is desperate to get a role in a new Quentin Tarantino movie while also dealing with a strained relationship with his teenage daughter. He also occasionally talks to an egotistical 1990s version of himself who rides him for making too many crappy movies and for not being a star anymore.
The Cage character is also under a mountain of debt and finds himself forced to make an appearance at the birthday party of a Mexican billionaire who happens to be a fan of the actor’s work and secretly hopes to show him a script on which he’s been working.”
A film reflecting on his history and changing career fortunes, you say? Was my book doomed to be irrelevant?
I eyed the project warily. The script’s co-writers, Kevin Etten and Tom Gormican, had solid credentials. Etten had worked for David Letterman, Scrubs, and Workaholics. He’d teamed with Gormican on the short-lived sitcom Ghosted, and interviews suggested they wouldn’t just be using Cage as a punchline. And while Cage didn’t always have the liberty to be choosy with his projects during his debt-clearing VOD years, he’s remained protective of his public image and didn’t seem likely to sign onto a movie that would make a mockery of him.
Eventually, I sought out the screenplay and liked what I read. Not only was it loaded with Cage references both obvious and obscure, it treated Cage as a three-dimensional character, one riddled with insecurities and eccentricities but striving to be a better person. “Nick Cage” read like the sort of character Nic Cage could play really well. What’s more, the project acknowledges and depends on the fact that Cage really is an actor of tremendous ability, despite the weird baggage his name has picked up over the years. Maybe this would be OK.
Then again, maybe it wouldn’t. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent was originally supposed to be released in March 2021. At one point, my editor asked if I thought I could have the book, originally scheduled for release last November, done in time to coincide with its release. After responding with something like, “Umm…… no?” we let the matter drop. Then Covid-related production delays moved Age of Cage’s release back to March 29th, just ahead of Unbearable Weight’s April 22 release. It felt like a happy convergence, but the question still lingered: What if the movie sucked? What if, instead of making viewers reconsider their preconceptions of Cage, it made him even easier to dismiss?
With some nervousness, I caught up with Unbearable Weight last weekend at the Wisconsin Film Festival. I’m happy to report it doesn’t suck. In fact, it’s pretty delightful.
I don’t think I could write a straightforward review given my history with the film and its subject. And to do so might even be a conflict of interest, since a rising tide lifts all Cages. But Unbearable Weight works both as a fun buddy comedy, thanks to Cage’s work with Pedro Pascal, who’s terrific as the rich super-fan, and Cage’s loose, appealing, heartfelt performance. If there’s a through-line to Cage’s work, it’s his habit of grounding even cartoonish performances in a character’s humanity. That’s true even when playing “himself.” The film lets him engage in fun physical comedy and self-deprecating gags — and occasionally finds him playing opposite a CGI-assisted version of his younger self. But it also lets him be vulnerable in ways that prevent him from becoming a mere punchline. It feels complementary to the book, like Gormican (who also directs) and Etten came to some of the same conclusions about Cage that I have.
We certainly drew on some of the same research (though they had the benefit of having Cage around). Some of the references are pretty obvious, like a line about “the bees,” a nod to a much-quoted moment from the director’s cut of The Wicker Man that became the centerpiece of a YouTube clip of Cage’s biggest acting moments. (Videos like that, of course, exemplify the sort of ironic internet appreciation that distorts ... eh, wait, all this is in Age of Cage.)
But some of the cuts go deeper. The imaginary young Nicolas Cage is the Cage of an extremely particular moment. Floppily haired and dressed in a black leather jacket and Wild at Heart t-shirt, this is Cage as he looked during a 1990 appearance on the British talk show Wogan, which is either a six-minute clip of a young actor losing his mind or a brilliant piece of performance art (or perhaps both). At one point, Pascal’s character asks Cage to drive because he knows Cage learned stunt driving for Gone in 60 Seconds. (Fact.) In another, Cage calls Captain Corelli’s Mandolin an underrated movie. (Mm…) For Cage fans, it’s not just a basket of Easter Eggs, it’s a trip to the White House Easter Egg Roll.
It’s a fun movie that truly gets Cage, which is something I write with admiration and, after two-and-a-half-years of nervous curiosity, a little bit of relief.
This is *exactly* the content we've all been waiting for. I'm glad the movie didn't let you down. I'm really looking forward to it!
Hopefully my local big-screener will make good on its tease that it'll rock up there, even if it's just a perfunctory one screening a day and gone after a week - window enough, surely. Just looked on imdb to see what my last cinematic Cager would've been - answer: LORD OF WAR in - bloody hell - 2005.