This review initially ran as part of Paste’s SXSW 2022 coverage.
It’s virtually impossible to think of an actor who has consistently maintained a larger presence—on or off the screen—than Nicolas Cage. From screaming “Not the bees!” in The Wicker Man to his gloriously bizarre southern accent in Con Air, Cage has been delivering audiences quotable gems and iconic moments since the early 1980s, inadvertently forming something of a cult around himself in the process.
No one appreciates this presence more than Tom Gormican, the director and co-writer of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, a film that stars Cage as himself. This version of “Nick” Cage is in the midst of a career crisis, and can’t seem to land a serious role to save his life. On top of that, his ex-wife Sally (Sharon Horgan) and teenage daughter Addy (Lily Sheen) are at wits’ end with his arrogant attitude (most egregious is that he won’t stop trying to force Addy to sit through The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari)...and he’s $600K in debt. (The real Cage landed in tax trouble a decade ago and had to accept some less-than-prestigious roles as a result.)
When Nick’s agent Ted (Neil Patrick Harris) offers him a gig that will land him $1 million to attend super-fan Javi’s (Pedro Pascal) birthday party on the Spanish coast of Mallorca, he has no choice but to begrudgingly accept. After arriving in Spain, things take a turn for the cataclysmic when CIA agents Vivian (Tiffany Haddish) and Ray (Ike Barinholtz) inform Nick that they suspect Javi kidnapped a political leader’s daughter, which means the actor is forced to stick around to try to rescue her using all of the stealth and fortitude he learned in his action roles.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent expertly weaves together numerous kinds of stories. At times, it’s a buddy comedy, and Cage and Pascal have such palpable chemistry that they effortlessly lift the genre to the height of its powers. At others, it’s a straight-faced spy-thriller, with stunts from Cage that are bound to remind the audience of classics like National Treasure and The Rock. But the best part of The Unbearable Weight is its impressive amount of self-awareness.
Most of this comes from Cage himself, who superbly channels caricatures that audiences know and love. His sleazy, long-haired alter-ego “Nicky” (billed as Nicolas Kim Coppola, Cage’s real name) recalls Cage’s cavalier 1990s-era Con Air slash Wild at Heart persona. Think Adaptation if Kaufman had gone the machismo route. Cage plays Nicky to his absolute limits, using a hilariously emphatic cadence while giving Nick impassioned pep talks on the significance of recapturing the fame he held 20 years prior.
The Unbearable Weight is self-aware not only in the sense that it sees a big star playing himself, but in its formula. When Nick realizes that he has to remain at Javi’s house until the CIA is able to rescue the kidnapped girl, he convinces the latter to let him stay by suggesting they write the next great Cage movie together. As they brainstorm the script, the two continually draw awareness to the modern blockbuster format, which inevitably brings our attention to the fact that The Unbearable Weight adheres to it, too. At one point, Nick explains to Javi that they need an action-style “hook” to bring people to the theaters. Perhaps, he suggests, that can take the form of a kidnapping. Indeed, Nick constantly makes remarks about the structure of the movie he’s currently inhabiting through he and Javi’s script. “I can’t stand talky comedies. It’s gotta have some plot to move it forward,” he declares at the end of an aimless walk-and-talk scene between him and Javi. As the film approaches its third act, Nick mentions that “it’s time we figure out how this thing ends.”
This is where the film’s self-awareness is less effective. Even though The Unbearable Weight pokes fun at the fact that, at times, it follows the cold formula of a blockbuster film…it still follows the cold formula of a blockbuster film. Indeed, locations and action sequences are often replete with flat and predictable CGI, and a lot of the dialogue feels stilted. Where The Unbearable Weight leans into the blockbuster format the most, though, is in the writing of its side characters. While Horgan is effortlessly funny and loveable, she is ultimately reduced to a frustrated ex-wife trope. Sheen has undeniable screen presence, but often feels more like a device for the Cages’ pathos than anything else.
Despite these weak spots, The Unbearable Weight works on almost every level. If you’re a Cage superfan, then you’re guaranteed to revel in the bounty of references to his filmography. But even if you’re not (though you will become one after this movie), this is an emotional, engaging, funny, riveting film. Perhaps the weight of massive talent is indeed unbearable, but The Unbearable Weight will make you happier than ever that Cage is still willing to shoulder it.
Director: Tom Gormican
Writers: Tom Gormican, Kevin Etten
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Pedro Pascal, Sharon Horgan, Lily Sheen, Tiffany Haddish, Ike Barinholtz, Jacob Scipio, Neil Patrick Harris, Alessandra Mastronardi, Paco León
Release Date: April 22, 2022
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.