Nicolas Cage’s sometimes over-the-top performances, complete with meme-worthy lifted brows and bulging eyeballs, are getting their own showcase. “People think I’m not in on the joke,” the headline of his 2013 Guardian profile reads. Lest there be any doubt, he’s now acted in and produced a feature-length film to prove his point.
Channeling the meta-ness of “Adaptation,” Cage stars in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” as a debt-ridden, washed-up actor named Nick Cage and as Nicky, his alter ego and a bad angel of sorts who appears to be 1980s-vintage Cage, here to facilitate internal dialogue. Per the film’s concocted biographical details, he has an ex-wife named Olivia (Sharon Horgan), a makeup artist he met on the set of “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,” and a teenage daughter named Addy (Lily Mo Sheen), who thinks Humphrey Bogart was an adult film performer.
(Nick Cage is not to be confused with Nic Cage; the real-life Cage has two sons and none of his four ex-spouses is named Olivia. Also, Allen Weisinger is credited for his “Corelli” makeup.)
Nick loses out on a “role of a lifetime” he desperately campaigned for — he proceeds to audition in a hotel driveway after the director (David Gordon Green, the real Cage’s “Joe” director, in a cameo) deprives him of a proper read — and he is $600,000 behind on rent. At the prompting of pal Richard Fink (Neil Patrick Harris), he agrees to make an appearance for $1 million at the birthday bash of superfan Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal).
Nick and Javi immediately bond amid the expansive backdrop of the Spanish coastline (Hungary and Croatia standing in); Javi fawns over Nick’s films and his larger-than-life screen persona, directly feeding the thespian’s narcissistic bent. They fall headfirst into this bromance, as each fills a void in the other’s life.
CIA operatives Vivian (Tiffany Haddish) and Martin (Ike Barinholtz) have been monitoring Javi, whom they suspect is a dangerous international arms dealer. Convinced that Javi has kidnapped the Catalonian president’s daughter, Maria (Katrin Vankova, “Alex Rider”), to throw a wrench into an upcoming election, Vivian recruits Nick and springs him into action-hero mode to help bring down his new best friend.
The film’s first action set-piece is undoubtedly its best, with Nick seizing an opportunity during Javi’s birthday party to infiltrate his office. As security approaches, Nick accidentally debilitates himself with a drug meant for the guard. When Vivian, speaking through his earpiece, fails to revive him, she shouts “Action!” and he bounces back right on cue. The later action sequences aren’t nearly as nail-biting or hilarious.
Like “Mandy” and “Pig,” “Massive Talent” has the trappings of a cult classic in waiting. Director-cowriter Tom Gormican (“That Awkward Moment,” Fox’s “Ghosted”) has devised an original and inspired concept. “Massive Talent” goes full fan service–y, tapping into the cult of personality shrouding its lead actor. But the actual finished product feels too inside-baseball; it takes a true Cage aficionado to be in on all the jokes.
Although Nick is a fictionalized version, he is famous for the exact same filmography as the real-life Cage. “Massive Talent” indiscriminately references “Valley Girl,” “Wild at Heart,” “Moonstruck,” “Vampire’s Kiss,” “Con Air,” “The Rock,” “National Treasure,” “Snake Eyes,” “Bangkok Dangerous,” “Drive Angry,” “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” “Ghost Rider,” “Peggy Sue Got Married,” “Raising Arizona,” etc. Some mentions are film excerpts (“Guarding Tess”), while others are reenactments (the pool scene from “Leaving Las Vegas”) or movie quotes (“Not the bees!” from “The Wicker Man”).
Even if you catch on to what Gormican and cowriter Kevin Etten (“Kevin Can F**k Himself”) are up to, “Massive Talent” eventually gets exhausting, bogged down by its own unbearable weight. The capacity crowd at the film’s SXSW Film Festival premiere was boisterous throughout its first act, but the enthusiasm began to wane as the movie progressed, either because the fan service gets in the way of storytelling, or perhaps because Gormican and Etten simply haven’t thought this all the way through. A greatest-hits medley isn’t the same as a cohesive, well-crafted song.
The film’s production values also fall short of expectations for a major-studio release; the Hungary and Croatia locations, meant to pass for the stomping grounds of the super-rich, don’t pop as either exotic or spectacular, suggesting again that Gormican might have been be too preoccupied with cinematic citations to ensure that this finished product stands on its own. There’s one memorable shot in which Cage’s reflection in a glass panel perfectly overlaps a wax figure of his likeness from “Face/Off,” and that’s really about it for memorable visual storytelling.
Cage is a good sport as expected, reliably delivering and recreating his signature crazy performances. He could just as easily play himself, but his turn here seems calibrated and thoughtful, since he’s constantly performing in the most amusingly Cage-ian way — in other words, “in on the joke.” The attendees at SXSW (with Cage present) definitely responded to this, alhough they also cheered through the scene of Nick’s desperate hour, when he tearfully announces his retirement from acting, which may well be intended as a heartfelt moment. (One hopes Cage won’t take that reaction personally and develop a complex.)
Pascal is fine, though this screen duo is never meant to be an equal partnership. His characterization and his redemption arc feel a bit like afterthoughts, which can be said about everyone on-screen except for Nick. It may have been more fun if this had just been a movie about Nick and Nicky, particularly if the screenwriters weren’t going to invest in anybody else.
“The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” opens in US theaters April 22.