This is a pivotal moment in Nicolas Cage’s career. Once a gold-plated blockbuster icon, he crashed to Earth many years ago in a flurry of financial mismanagement and poor career choices. You just have to look at his IMDb page for proof of the latter. Did you watch Inconceivable? Mom and Dad? Southern Fury? Vengeance: A Love Story? The Humanity Bureau? No, of course you didn’t, and they were only the movies he made in 2017.
Slowly but surely, though, Cage has been working his way back to us, either with fun little parts in big movies (Teen Titans Go to the Movies, Into the Spider-Verse) or acclaimed turns in smaller fare (Mandy, Pig). The Cage comeback continues, with news that he has signed on to star as Dracula in Chris McKay’s Renfield, alongside Nicholas Hoult and Awkwafina. And then there is The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.
Plenty has been spoken about The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, most of it weird, but the trailer released this week makes everything much more clear. In The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, Nicolas Cage plays Nicolas Cage, an actor enduring a career slump, who is forced to take a million-dollar job attending a wealthy super-fan’s birthday. And Nicolas Cage has to assume the identity of several classic Nicolas Cage characters, which are all real-life Nicolas Cage characters because Nicolas Cage is playing the real Nicolas Cage. Additionally, Cage will also play Nicky, a figment of his own imagination. I may have overestimated how clear this all is.
What we can say for certain about The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is that Nicolas Cage will never watch it. In September, he told Collider that “It’s just too much of a whacked-out trip for me”. This is apparently because the director Tom Gormican wanted Cage to play himself as much more extreme as he usually is. “I’m really [made of] quiet, meditative, thoughtful moments. I’m not this neurotic, high-strung, anxiety-ridden guy all the time,” he said.
And yet it seems fairly certain that Cage will get more attention for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent than for any role he has played in a decade. Because although we’re impressed when actors successfully erase themselves in the pursuit of a role, it’s much more interesting when they play themselves.
Of course it is. Watching any actor play any role is always a game to try and see where the actor stops and the character begins. When they play themselves, the stakes are heightened. Is Bill Murray really the same as the Bill Murray who appeared in Zombieland? Probably not, no; that Murray is the idealised version of him that we see in our mind when we close our eyes. What about the Neil Patrick Harris who appeared in the Harold and Kumar films? Not like the real Neil Patrick Harris at all, by any stretch of the imagination, but that was the fun of it. Was the Keanu Reeves who appeared in Always Be My Maybe the real Keanu Reeves? I’m willing to say yes on this. Keanu Reeves is a rare and special flower, and he is allowed to be anything he desires.
Plus playing yourself in a film is a very quick way to redefine your persona. Before Harold and Kumar, for example, everyone knew Neil Patrick Harris exclusively as Doogie Howser. But having an extended cameo in a comedy where the characters shout your full name so often that it becomes a catchphrase is perhaps the best possible way to wipe the slate clean.
Similarly, Jean-Claude Van Damme was a down and out middle-aged action star in 2008, reduced to churning out home entertainment fare for wildly reduced rates. But then came JCVD, in which Van Damme played a version of himself riddled with insecurities and self-loathing, and people started to take him seriously again. In this instance he couldn’t make good on it – the very next year he was back making unwatched Universal Soldier sequels – but for one shimmering moment the whole world was opened up to him.
And, at least to me, that’s what The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is designed to do for Nicolas Cage. It’s going to be a joyride through all of his greatest hits, and will therefore reconnect him with an audience that long since left him. It is going to say “This is who I am”. It is going to say “This is what I can do”. It is going to say “This is why you fell in love with me”.
Either that or it’ll be absolutely terrible. That’s the thing with this sort of film. There’s never much of a middle ground.