Review: ‘The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent’ is a slapdash showcase for a screen legend

‘Nick Cage’ greets ‘Javi Gutierrez’ with a ‘Palm Hold Fist’ salute as he arrives in Mallorca, Spain. | Credit: Katalin Vermes

In real life, Nicolas Cage is having an extended moment. His indie drama "Pig" got rave reviews last year, a just-released book called "Age of Cage" articulates the importance of his long, eclectic career and the new movie "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent" is his first live-action starring role to receive a wide theatrical release in ages. 

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Ironically, however, the movie itself steers Cage straight back into a semi-fictionalized rough patch. In it, Cage plays a version of himself: A desperate, ego-driven, overspending former star, desperate for a comeback role. He’s introduced during a lunch where his overeagerness causes him to lose out on what he considers the "role of a lifetime"— treating the audience to a scene where he over-emotes with a bad Boston accent as an impromptu audition.

About "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent": Time for a Cage match


Tiffany Haddish, Nicolas Cage. 

So where does this low point take the fictional Nic Cage? To a job, of course. As a stop-gap solution for some money woes, he accepts a million-dollar offer to fly to Spain and appear at the birthday party of Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal), a wealthy admirer of Cage’s work.

Cage is wary of potential catches to this weird offer, but he doesn’t anticipate the actual problem – one explained to him by a couple of CIA operatives (Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz). Javi is apparently an arms dealer involved with a kidnapping, and the CIA needs Cage to assist with a rescue mission. In other words, a cheesy Nic Cage action movie keeps intruding on the actor’s attempts to get his money and get out — further complicated by the fact that he grows to genuinely like Javi. 

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Even before the movie kicks into parodic absurdity, it’s clear that it won’t be ripping everything directly from Cage’s real life. Understandably, his family situation is entirely fictionalized, giving him a made-up ex-wife Olivia (Sharon Horgan) and teenage daughter Addy (Lily Sheen — the real-life daughter of Michael Sheen and Kate Beckinsale). Much of the movie is also about Cage’s inability to connect with his kid, which lends the proceedings both a touching sincerity and a gloss of canned, sitcom-esque conflict. 


Nicolas Cage, Lily Sheen, Sharon Horgan

Though it’s a substantial step up from director/co-writer Tom Gormican’s previous film (the appalling relationship comedy "That Awkward Moment"), "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent" takes a choppy, half-baked approach to its humor. Gormican and co-writer Kevin Etten clearly have ideas for comic set pieces: Cage accidentally dosing himself with a knockout drug while breaking into a security room; Cage and Javi workshopping a screenplay; Cage donning an outlandish disguise to elude bad guys. Yet none of those gags sustain for longer than a few moderately amusing minutes. Though the movie politely declines to mention Cage’s extended detour into direct-to-video films, "Unbearable Weight" sometimes resembles the more watchable of those titles: a good premise, anchored by a good Cage performance, undermined by slapdash craft and a presumably limited shooting schedule.

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Cage deserves a better class of meta-movie, something as trippy, existential and original as "Being John Malkovich." But then, he more or less already had that in "Adaptation" (albeit channeled through the experiences of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, rather than his own life). That’s the movie "Unbearable Weight" most resembles when it starts winking at its impending transition from a "grounded adult drama" to the madness of its action-packed, stakes-raising third act. But the comparison isn’t flattering for "Unbearable Weight." Indeed, it only underlines the fact that some of the nuances of Cage’s career — the years of bargain-bin movies, the early self-destructive instincts, the fact that he already made "Adaptation" — get lost when reducing the actor’s filmography to merely the result of an endless art-versus-commerce struggle. 


Nicolas Cage

It’s especially strange to see Cage’s success-obsessed movie-star id embodied by his imagined younger self (played naturally, by a digitally de-aged Cage). In imaginary conversations between the two Cages, the younger version insists he’s a big, shining star — even though his live-wire physicality is modeled on Cage’s wilder, more experimental years. Would the guy from "Vampire’s Kiss" and "Wild at Heart" really be urging his older self to mount a big Hollywood comeback?

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See "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent" for: Its great lead performances

Yet within its own limited ideas about Cage’s career, "Unbearable Weight" does maintain a vital and disarming sincerity, one created and sustained by its lead performances.


Javi Gutierrez' (Pedro Pascal, left) and 'Nicolas Cage' (Nicolas Cage, right) zooming through the mountains of Mallorca, Spain. Photo Credit: Katalin Vermes/Lionsgate

Pascal has become an expert at locating the boyish neediness beneath adult ambitions. How many other actors could make a request to read their screenplay seem credibly innocent, rather than opportunistic? Cage, meanwhile, does what he’s done so often, even in his low-budget dreck: He punctuates a committed, fully felt performance with expressive actorly flourishes. He knows when to show off and when — as in the movie’s lovely final scene — to pull back. 

As a comedy, "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent" is pretty pedestrian. As a treatise on the simultaneous ridiculousness and transcendence of movie acting, though, it understands the allure of playing pretend. 

Grade: B-

In theaters nationwide April 22. Rated R. 107 minutes. Dir: Tom Gormican. Featuring: Nicolas Cage, Pedro Pascal, Sharon Horgan, Lily Sheen, Tiffany Haddish, Ike Barinholtz

About the writer: Jesse Hassenger is a writer, editor, and film critic based in Brooklyn, New York. His reviews and essays have appeared in The A.V. Club, Polygon, Paste Magazine, The Week, and Decider, among others. He also co-hosts the horror podcast The New Flesh, sometimes writes fiction, and enjoys rock and roll. His tweets about the Brine King from Aquaman appear at @rockmarooned. 

More Nic Cage — streaming free on Tubi

Leaving Las Vegas (1995): This is the movie to show someone who somehow still believes that Nicolas Cage isn’t a generational talent. It earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor, and that statuette was well-deserved. Not a light viewing experience, but an incredibly worthwhile one. Rated R. 111 minutes. Dir: Mike Figgis. Also featuring Elisabeth Shue, Julian Sands, Richard Lewis, Steven Weber.

Guarding Tess (1994): The legendary Shirley Maclaine earned a Golden Globe nod for this dramedy, playing a former First Lady of the United States who seems to make exasperating her chief Secret Service agent (Nicolas Cage) her top priority. MacLaine is good, of course, but "Tess" is a true two-hander, and the dynamic between these two powerhouse performers ensures that even when the story goes a little off the rails, the movie never does. Rated PG-13. 95 minutes. Dir: Hugh Wilson. Also featuring Austin Pendleton, Edward Albert, James Rebhorn, Richard Griffiths.

Bangkok Dangerous (2008): For an example of a decent Nicolas Cage performance in a very bad action movie, try this remake of the 1999 Thai film of the same name. Cage plays a remorseless contract killer who finds himself training a young protégé and falling for a civilian in — where else? — Bangkok. Rated R. 99 minutes. Dir: The Pang Brothers. Also featuring Shahkrit Yamnarm, Charlie Yeung, Panward Hemmanee, Nirattisai Kaljareuk.

Peggy Sue Got Married (1986): Kathleen Turner earned an Oscar nomination for her stellar performance as a 40-something woman on the verge of divorcing her high school sweetheart (Nicolas Cage) who suddenly finds herself transported back to her senior year. Director Francis Ford Coppola brings a welcome dose of humanity to this nostalgic 1980s-meets-1960s time traveling comedy. And Cage offers an early glimpse of the out-there energy that characterizes his signatures performances. Rated PG-13. 103 minutes. Dir: Francis Ford Coppola. Also featuring Barry Miller, Catherine Hicks, Jim Carrey, Helen Hunt, John Carradine, Maureen O'Sullivan, Sofia Coppola, Lisa Jane Perksy.

Even more Cage: "Grand Isle" (2019), "Rage" (2014), "Birdy" (1984), "Eight Millimeter" (1999), "Amos & Andrew" (1993), "Stolen" (2012) and "Vengeance: A Love Story" (2017).

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