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The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent review: A Nicolas Cage meta-comedy sprung from superfan heaven

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Dir: Tom Gormican. Starring: Nicolas Cage, Pedro Pascal, Sharon Horgan, Ike Barinholtz, Alessandra Mastronardi, Jacob Scipio, Neil Patrick Harris, Tiffany Haddish. 15, 107 minutes.

In my early twenties, I experienced what you might call an “intense Nicolas Cage” phase – a hyperfix-Cage-tion, if you will. At its height, I was watching his notoriously unhinged 2006 remake of The Wicker Man on a near-monthly basis, with my in-jokes progressing beyond merely quoting it (“Not the bees!”; “How’d it get burned!”) to referencing obscure bits of set dressing in it. Do you remember that the epi-pen Cage’s character carries around for his bee allergy is specifically labelled a “Bee-Epi”? Because I remember. One weekend, my friends and I handmade T-shirts with his face and some of our favourite Cage quotes on them, then stayed up for 24 hours straight marathoning the best of his movies: Vampire’s Kiss, Peggy Sue Got Married and, of course, Face/Off.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a film made explicitly for people like me. People who aren’t just Nicolas Cage fans, but whose adoration of the actor comes packaged inside a kind of cultish fervour. It’s an outsized meta-comedy sprung directly from the GIFs, unofficial merch, and YouTube supercuts of every time he’s screamed his head off across his four-decade career. On paper, it seems like a dream come true: a semi-riff on his 2002 Hollywood satire Adaptation, with Cage playing himself or, more accurately, the version of himself conjured up by the public’s imagination. This Cage is desperately looking for the role that will restore his mega-star reputation, after years of cranking out direct-to-streaming titles like they were in danger of going extinct (he had six films out in 2019 alone).

He’s haunted, too, by a vision of his younger self, dressed like he was during his infamous 1990 interview on Wogan where he somersaulted and high-kicked his way onto the sofa. The CGI de-ageing on him looks ghoulish. That’s largely the point. “You’re not an actor, you’re a f***ing movie star!” this younger Cage, who goes by Nicky, screams in his counterpart’s face before planting a giant kiss on his lips. It’s a crisis of confidence expressed purely in Cage-ian language, compounded by the fact that he has just one job on the table: an appearance at the birthday party of a billionaire super-fan (Pedro Pascal’s Javi) in exchange for a million dollars.

His visit to Javi’s Mallorca villa is interrupted by two CIA agents, Tiffany Haddish’s Vivian and Ike Barinholtz’s Martin, who inform Cage that his seemingly gracious host is in fact the head of a criminal empire. They convince him to stay on as a spy, under the pretext of helping Javi work on a movie script. The script, as time goes on, starts to mirror the two men’s blossoming friendship.

What really caught me off guard about The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is its sweetness. The film, directed by Tom Gormican, is certainly indulgent in its references: there’s a swimming pool shot directly cribbed from Leaving Las Vegas, an appearance by Castor Troy’s gold pistols from Face/Off, as well as the chainsaw from Mandy. The film drops in references to Cage’s self-described “nouveau shamanic” acting style without bothering to explain it to the uninitiated. But Gormican, and his co-writer Kevin Etten, also gently interrogate the way that stardom robs people of their nuances and their little, human foibles. There’s a sadness to their Cage – he doesn’t understand why people mock him when, in any other job, his level of productivity would be applauded as hard work.

The film invents for Cage a makeup artist ex-wife (Sharon Horgan) and a 16-year-old daughter named Addy (Lily Sheen, daughter of Michael Sheen and Kate Beckinsale), who he struggles to connect with because she doesn’t share his love of film; she seems to think that Humphrey Bogart is the name of a porn star. He bonds so quickly with Javi because he’s finally found someone who can understand the descriptor of “Cassavetes meets Iñárritu” – in fact, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent plays more like a bromance at times than it does a meta-portrait of its star.

Tiffany Haddish and Nicolas Cage in ‘The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent' (Karen Ballard/Lionsgate)
Tiffany Haddish and Nicolas Cage in ‘The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent' (Karen Ballard/Lionsgate)

That’s largely because of a smartly cast Pascal, an actor whose own recent uptick in popularity (he plays the Mandalorian in the Star Wars franchise) has increasingly started to mirror Cage’s. Through his interviews and his online presence, he’s cultivated his own miniature storm of internet adoration, stemming from the same puppyish enthusiasm and easy likeability that he pours into his performance here. He’s also one of the few actors (Willem Dafoe being a notable outlier) who has the ability to volley back the energy that Cage puts out. The film rockets through its more conventional, action-comedy finale purely because both actors throw themselves wholeheartedly into the slapstick. It’s a big win for Pascal. And it makes me wonder whether, in a decade or so’s time, someone will make a meta-comedy about how often he’s probably asked to shove his thumbs in his eyes and act out his death scene from Game of Thrones. Let’s hope so – I’d watch it in a heartbeat.

‘The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent’ is in cinemas from Friday 22 April

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