Movies

Nicolas Cage’s New Movie Isn’t the First Time He’s Played Himself

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent stars Nic Cage as “Nick Cage,” but hasn’t it always been thus?

In the center, Nicolas Cage in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, lounging in sunglasses with his shirt open. In the background, smaller stills of Cage in Face/Off and Cage in Adaptation.
The “heat-seeking panther” has made himself a meta movie star, the kind who forces us to question the nature of acting itself. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Katalin Vermes/Lionsgate, Paramount Pictures, and Sony.

In Tom Gormican’s sprightly, shaggy new comedy The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, Nic Cage’s character Nick (with a K!) Cage periodically engages in conversation with Nicky Cage, a digitally de-aged version of himself. At one point Nick the younger, costumed and styled to look like the gonzo 26-year-old who once made his entrance on a BBC chat show by turning a half-successful front handspring and flinging cash at the live audience, scolds his middle-aged self for no longer seeking roles worthy of his genius. “You’re not an actor, you’re a fucking MOVIE STAR!” he bellows, before giving his future self a long kiss on the lips. (Later, the present-day Cage will praise his own performance as a kisser, insisting repeatedly to everyone in earshot that “Nick Cage smooches good!”)

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In the course of the real-life Cage’s now 40-year-long career, he has often had occasion to encounter his double. In Spike Jonze’s Adaptation and in John Woo’s Face/Off—not to mention in the countless other movies where Cage’s character refracts some version of his on- or offscreen self—he has chosen roles that play on the audience’s assumed knowledge of his outsized star persona and well-documented personal eccentricities. The Cage-on-Cage encounters in Massive Talent speak to a dynamic that has driven the actor’s career for decades: Nicolas Cage is forever engaged in the search for Nicolas Cage. He is a public figure who’s perfectly comfortable (and maybe even a bit obsessed) with displaying that self-reflexive dynamic in the roles he chooses.

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Nicky Cage’s concern for the career integrity of his elder incarnation is, in the world outside the movie’s frame, misplaced. Just last year, Cage received widespread critical praise for his performance in Pig, an introspective indie from a debut director about a lonely truffle-hunter’s search for his kidnapped porcine pal—hardly a movie that could be classified as a crass action blockbuster or a cynical cash grab. In recent years, Cage has appeared in a series of highly personal roles in well-regarded uncommercial projects: the trippy revenge actioner Mandy, the H.P. Lovecraft adaptation Color Out of Space, the horror-tinged samurai Western Prisoners of the Ghostland. His role choices have long been nothing if not idiosyncratic. For every Nic Cage character that lives rent-free in your head and your memes folder (Sailor Ripley in Wild at Heart! Cameron Poe in Con Air! The guy who hates bees in The Wicker Man!), there are three more in below-the-radar movies you’ve likely only seen if you’re a hardcore Cage completist. His wild ride of a career, lovingly documented by the critic Keith Phipps in the lively new book Age of Cage, stretches to 103 films, and at 58, he shows no sign of either slowing down or growing more conservative in his tastes. Indeed, for every year that’s passed since his Best Actor Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas in 1996, he’s given less of a rat’s ass what anyone thinks of his choices, onscreen or off.

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In a beat poetry-styled travel diary Cage wrote for Details magazine in 1991 on the heels of the release of the straight-to-video erotic thriller Zandalee, he expressed the desire to be “John Denver on acid playing the accordion” (having already attained the status, in his words, of “a lizard, a shark, and a heat-seeking panther … a glow-in-the-dark rollercoaster … a hard-on”). The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is Cage’s latest stab at this surreal fantasy of somehow incarnating every conceivable existence at once. The film’s premise—that the fictional Nick Cage, at a low point of career burnout, accepts a well-paid offer to travel to Mallorca to attend the birthday party of a rich Spanish superfan named Javi (Pedro Pascal)—gives the actor an opportunity to explore the concept of multiple competing identities. But as Nic Cage-on-Nic Cage vehicles go, Massive Talent is neither the most original nor the weirdest, which says a lot about just how many offbeat movies this heat-seeking actor has appeared in to date.

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In the buddy-comedy scenes between Cage and Pascal, Massive Talent is at its best. The fictional Cage’s at first resentful relationship to his adoring host turns into a fast friendship as the two bond over their shared love for the silent German Expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (one of the real-life Cage’s longtime favorite films) and drop acid together in a seaside village (accordions and John Denver are unfortunately not involved). It’s a delight to watch these two overprivileged oddballs bond and bicker as they first evade and later, on Nick’s part at least, abet the CIA surveillance team assigned to track Javi, whom they believe to be an international criminal mastermind. But the thriller plot that takes over for the last third of the movie feels hastily tacked on, with Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz both squandered in the roles of agents who have little to do but witness the action remotely through security cameras.

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But for me the biggest disappointment of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent—a likeable if lightweight comedy that’s more than worth seeing for Cage’s and Pascal’s touching bromance and its Nick-confronts-Nicky fantasy sequences—was that it didn’t go even further with its central doppelgänger conceit. No script that follows in Charlie Kaufman’s footsteps is going to come off well when it comes to twisty self-referentiality, but in comparison with the nested narratives and competing genres of 2003’s Adaptation, this latter-day execution of a similar concept (with nearly 20 more years of Cage filmography to spin into meta-jokes) almost seems to lack the courage of its high-concept convictions. The doubling of Cage’s character in Adaptation, where he played not a barely-fictionalized version of himself but a barely-fictionalized version of Kaufman—served a larger purpose than just putting the actor in conversation with a version of himself. The conflict between twin brothers Charlie and Donald Kaufman (the latter a pure construct, a slick Hollywood screenwriter coasting to easy success while his tormented sibling struggles to finish a script) becomes, in the delirious final act, a battle between two kinds of filmmaking: the grand-scale blockbuster vs. the introspective indie, the flamboyant movie star vs. the fiercely private, Caligari-loving weirdo, Cage vs. Cage.

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Face/Off, from 1997, took the enigma of Cage-ian identity in a whole other direction, with Hong Kong action director John Woo transplanting the star’s outsized persona into the body of fellow over-the-top-goer John Travolta, while Travolta’s character migrates into Cage’s body via highly experimental (and enjoyably preposterous) face-switching surgery. The expressionist acting Cage had been looking for chances to explore since the reviled-at-the-time Vampire’s Kiss in 1989 finds its highest expression in the scenes where Cage, as a morally upright FBI agent forced by involuntary face swap to pose as the villainous Castor Troy, must communicate at once a reluctance to harm others and a credible imitation of Troy’s gleeful penchant for violence. It’s a performance within a performance, with the grand-scaled charisma of one movie star nested inside another—a degree of meta-ness that puts Massive Talent’s Nick-meets-Nicky scenes to shame, and the kind of high-octane acting challenge Cage has always loved to rise to.

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I wrote an assessment of Cage’s career way back in 2010, when he had just released the disappointingly mundane family movie The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. He was then heading into one of the tougher decades of his career and life: In the 2010s, Cage struggled to find the right roles, while also dealing with financial troubles thanks to his notoriously lavish spending habits. (Yes, he did once outbid Leonardo DiCaprio for a $276,000 dinosaur skull.) But my early-2010s worries that this one-of-a-kind actor, whom I’ve loved since his unmistakable eyebrows appeared above the top of a shower curtain in the 1983 teen romp Valley Girl, would disappear down a rabbit hole of mediocre blockbusters proved unfounded. It was too soon to summarize his career then, and 12 years later, it still is. Let’s check in again after another dozen have passed.

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