Return of the Earnest Action Star: Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent
by Brendan Hegarty
Nicolas Cage’s acting career is one of the most dynamic in the industry. In recent years, he has gained a reputation for a wide range of roles, many of which were box office oddities, or even no-shows that passed directly to video release. Still, his glory days as an action star in the National Treasure franchise and before that, classics like Con Air, Face/Off, and The Rock are the reason his name carries enough weight to potentially lift any of his latest projects. An eclectic collection of films and his oddball public persona, bolstered by strange headlines like the returning of a T-Rex skull to the Mongolian government, have contributed to the enormous character of Cage. It is fitting that in his most recent movie, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, Cage opts to play himself, albeit an exaggerated version. The movie is a delight to any fans of Cage or his brand of action movies precisely because it refuses to take itself too seriously.
The premise comes from Cage’s public struggles with debt and the IRS in the wake of his peak in the late 90s, where the fictionalized actor is down on his luck and living role to role without many chances for true artistic expression. He takes an offer to attend a fan’s birthday because he cannot afford to refuse the million-dollar paycheck, and is drawn into a typically absurd Cageian plot. The CIA contracts him to assist with an ongoing investigation into the party’s host, played by Pedro Pascal, who leads a powerful crime family. Nicolas Cage is a delight as actor and character as the audience watches him take on the real-life equivalent of the action hero super spy. Unbearable Weight teems with self-referential lines and moments that subvert action tropes and, even when predictable, these moments ring true for the audience.
The whole cast shines in their roles, but Pascal’s performance is one of the high points of the entire movie. He manages to ground Cage’s larger than life persona, despite playing an eccentric Spanish olive oil magnate. The two play off of each other as strange men with a love for movies and guns, and their instant chemistry provides some of the movie's best laughs and emotional moments. Additionally, the subplot of the two men writing a movie of their own offers Unbearable Weight a way to poke fun at itself with ridiculous action set pieces or offhand remarks. The two men lament the fact that a serious “character driven” film marketed towards adults cannot make it in the modern market without action or intrigue, but the real-life filmmakers’ choice to take such a marketable path benefits the audience. Ultimately, the characters and individual performances elevate this movie from interesting to exceptional. Cage’s presence as himself is enough of a gimmick to draw people in, but such a premise is played to perfection in a movie fit only for Nicolas Cage.
Characters are often tied to each other or motivated by the film’s strong theme of family. Connections to organized crime and blackmail move the action plot forward, but the film also deals with the unbearable weight that Cage’s acting career (and ego) can place upon his immediate family. The family therapy sessions and the birthday party scene at the start of the film are hard to watch, but they establish a dynamic that makes later revelations and character beats all the more earned.
This allegedly “character driven” movie’s boldest character choice comes from the relationship Cage has with an imagined version of himself. The actor frequently speaks with a version of himself from Wild at Heart (1990) who is frozen in time. This device allows him to work out his relationship with his career and sense of self in relation to those around him. Of course, the movie never misses a chance to reference the actor’s previous work, and other characters are often realistically confused that Nicolas Cage is present in any given setting within the film. For a die-hard Cage fan, each of these references might be rewarding, and the movie moves past them quickly enough that they rarely hurt its pacing or mass-appeal. In fact, Cage’s persona and acting history bolster the success of this movie in the present action movie market. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent finds a balance between the endless sequels and spinoffs of established franchises and the bland melange of streaming service originals carried by familiar stars playing cookie cutter characters. Nicolas Cage gives the film a sense of familiarity, but the filmmakers take the opportunity to dig deeply into both the man and the myth. The movie rejects the everyman trope, reminding everyone that there is really only one Nick Cage.
The movie’s version of Cage seeks validation as a serious actor and contemplates quitting when he realizes his situation in the industry, but the events of the movie help him to rediscover the joy of film. Cage contemplates his own favorite movies and his relationship with the industry at every turn, and these interactions come together to construct a perfect return to form for Cage, the leading man. By no means is this a release that begs audiences to take him seriously once more—Cage plays the man that fans already love, not some biopic version of himself or an overwrought Oscar-baiting performance. This movie is clearly made by people that love Nick Cage (himself included), and it powerfully executes a tribute to the man and the action hero as a Hollywood institution. The script, settings, style, and performances ooze with a fun and lighthearted nature that reveal a true passion for movies present at every level of production.
Make no mistake, this movie could be unbearable to people expecting a serious film, but it is curated directly to a particular audience. For those hoping for a fresh action romp or a celebration of the genre’s most perplexing figure, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is sure to deliver.
Brendan Hegarty is a sophomore in the SFS studying Culture and Politics and is the commentary co-editor. Photo Credit to Lionsgate Pictures.