'The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent' review: Cage is as Cage does

The eccentric (to say the least) actor plays himself in spirited meta-comedy.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

There's a gleam in Nicolas Cage's eye in "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent," a welcome return for the Oscar winner who, for many years, seemed to be just going through the motions. 

For much of the 21st century, work has been just work for Cage, and in one sleepy project after another he seemed to show up, do his dance, collect a paycheck and leave. There were glimmers of hope — "Joe," "Mandy," last year's "Pig" — but they almost seemed like accidents; even a broken clock, you know the rest. But in "Massive Talent," the massive talent is back. And Nicolas Cage is, once again, ready to rock. 

Nicolas Cage and Pedro Pascal in "The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent."

Fittingly enough for the madman virtuoso of his generation, the role that brings him back is that of Nicolas Cage. The actor plays himself — or a heightened version of himself, as if you could take Nicolas Cage any higher — in this spirited meta-comic action romp, in which he spends a long weekend with a Nic Cage superfan and ends up entangled with the CIA in a kidnapping plot. You know, Cage stuff. 

But the real action is Cage riffing on Cage, becoming the meme and devouring it whole. "Massive Talent" is a house of mirrors where he's able to poke fun at himself, his persona and his career, and there are references to his gonzo work in "Moonstruck," "Leaving Las Vegas," "Face/Off," "National Treasure," "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" ("underrated for sure," Cage quips), "Croods 2" and more. It's Ultimate Cage, a testament to his singular insanity and the 40 years he's spent building his temple. He hasn't had this much fun in years, and neither has his cult of fans.   

"Massive Talent" begins, fittingly enough, with a scene from "Con Air," Cage's 1997 action-cheese hit from his surprise blockbuster era, as two fans watch in amazement and drink in the Tao of Cage. Cut to Cage himself, who is now angling for a new role just a little too hard, and the project's writer is scared off by the actor's famous intensity when he corners him outside an L.A. hotel.

Driving away from the meeting, Cage is visited by a younger, crazier version of himself, dressed in all black and resembling the Cage from his out-of-control 1990 promo tour for "Wild at Heart." Cage refers to this unfettered version of himself as "Nicky" and isn't receptive to his movie star attitude and kicks him out of his car.  

Pedro Pascal and Nicolas Cage in "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent."

When he doesn't get the role, a down-on-his-luck Cage entertains an offer to collect a $1 million payday to be a guest at a fan's birthday party in Spain. After that, he'll retire from screen acting altogether.

The fan, Javi (Pedro Pascal), is a sweet-natured fellow who wrote a script he wants Cage to read, but is nervous to present it to him. Meanwhile, a pair of CIA agents (played by Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz) are surveilling Javi for his links to an international kidnapping scandal. The agents decide to use Cage as an asset and activate him in the field, and Cage gets to live out his action movie fantasies in real life. 

The layers of fantasy, reality and meta commentary pile up on top of each other, although the plot itself eventually becomes a cumbersome distraction. But Cage, lampooning himself in a museum dedicated to his memorabilia, making fun of his performance in "The Wicker Man" ("not the bees!") and embracing his own kooky legend, is all joy. Same for Pascal, playing the Cage enthusiast, and once they're able to drop the pretense of the story a sweet, touching friendship emerges between the two characters. It's Cage's show, but Pascal gets plenty of shine.  

There's a line that all this wink-winky self-congratulating could easily cross but never does, and "Massive Talent" is playful at heart rather than too-cool-for-school. That's a credit to director and co-writer Tom Gormican ("That Awkward Moment"), whose bizarro homage to Cage manages to simultaneously send up and celebrate the actor's eccentricities.

Cage really goes for it here, and he's endearing in a way he hasn't been in a long time, if ever. For a while it seemed like the actor was gone forever, doomed to ride out his days in dreary straight-to-streaming titles, a shadow of his former self. But "Massive Weight" is a new beginning. It's proof that no journey is over until the final step, and that you can always come home again. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent'

GRADE: B

Rated R: for language throughout, some sexual references, drug use and violence

Running time: 106 minutes

In theaters