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The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a Nic Cage meme as a movie

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Pedro Pascal and Nicolas Cage sell a film with vibes

An image of Nicolas Cage in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent Lionsgate Entertainment

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent may achieve the highest concentration of Nicolas Cage possible in a piece of media without advanced scientific instruments. It’s a movie about Nic Cage (played by Nic Cage) teaming up with a possibly criminal fan of Nic Cage to make a movie about Nic Cage (played by Nic Cage playing Nic Cage) while occasionally yelling at and / or kissing a second, imaginary Nic Cage (played by Nic Cage run through a creepy de-aging filter). It features clips from several earlier Nic Cage movies as well as a Nic Cage memorabilia room containing a Nic Cage statue and that sequin pillow with Nic Cage on it. Nic Cage attended the film’s premiere at SXSW. So did at least one person holding a paper cutout of Nic Cage’s face.

Nic Cage is a cultural meme, but he’s also an actor known for making great films excellent and otherwise terrible films at least interestingly terrible. And Massive Talent — directed by Tom Gormican — doesn’t fit in either category. The film is theoretically a self-aware satire of fandom, Hollywood, and Cage’s own legendary status, featuring a heavily fictionalized version of the star. In reality, it’s an often fun but aimless action-comedy that diagnoses its own narrative issues instead of fixing them.

To offer a slightly more detailed version of the summary above, Massive Talent is about a version of Nic Cage who is professionally successful but personally a mess. He’s broke, he’s divorced, he’s lost the role of a lifetime, and he’s alarmed that his teenage daughter Addy (Lily Sheen) doesn’t enjoy 1920s German expressionist cinema. (In reality, Cage is currently married and has a son named after Superman.) He is hectored about his life choices by “Nicky,” an uncanny valley version of himself who exemplifies all Cage’s famously quirky excesses, particularly his penchant for screaming a lot.

At the end of his rope, Cage is offered $1 million to visit the remote Spanish compound of a wealthy superfan and amateur screenwriter named Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal). Then, a CIA agent (Tiffany Haddish) intercepts him and says his new benefactor is a mobster who’s kidnapped a politician’s daughter. She conscripts Cage to find the girl — who is also a Nic Cage fan — by declaring that he wants to make a movie with Javi. The problem is that Cage turns out to really like the man, and despite the force of what he deems his “nouveau shamanic” thespian instincts, he’s not a particularly amazing spy.

I had the benefit of watching Massive Talent in a theater packed with downright feral Cage devotees who gave it a standing ovation — when the actor showed up clad in a plaid suit, one audience member threw her head back and screamed like a mountain lion. Even without that atmosphere, the film’s leading duo could probably sell the film on their chemistry alone. Pascal dials his portrayal of a sweet but possibly murderous character up to Cage-worthy intensity. Cage oscillates between bewildered straight man and intense meme-self, a contrast that feels more natural than it sounds. The best scenes depend heavily on Pascal and Cage’s sense of comic timing and their ability to deliver dialogue that’s genre-savvy without sounding gratingly Whedonesque.

Unfortunately, the overall experience remains fairly scattered. There’s some very, very gentle satire of Hollywood and a perfunctory series of scenes where Cage tries his hand at spycraft. There’s a broadly drawn “cynical egotist gets his mojo back” plot as Cage learns to reconnect with his daughter and his craft through Javi. There’s a running metacommentary on Massive Talent’s own plot through jokes about Cage and Javi’s script, including a suggestion that the spycraft is just a hook to draw in audiences. But much of this seems like a distraction from watching Cage and Pascal hang out.

At best — and I mean best seriously because it’s a reasonable and pleasurable raison d’êtreMassive Talent is real-person fanfiction. It pairs up Cage with Pascal’s original character for a lot of loose scenes where they take LSD, talk through movie ideas, jump off picturesque cliffs, and, in a nod to a 2021 extremely online joke, conclude Paddington 2 is really good.

But like much fanfiction, the movie depends on you already having a strong attachment to its protagonist. Massive Talent doesn’t develop Cage’s character much beyond the limits of his immediate physical performance. His ex-wife and daughter don’t get beyond generic placeholders for a family relationship, and the film glosses over what makes him tick as an actor, seemingly expecting that you’ll show up with a strong grasp of Cage’s prolific career and its weird blend of highbrow and lowbrow roles.

Massive Talent also assiduously avoids some of the most distinctive aspects of Cage fandom, which grows as much from performative cultural hivemind dynamics as classic Hollywood stardom. Characters react to fictional Cage the way they would any big-name action star with a varied career, not someone who’s beloved in part because he takes a lot of roles in surreally awful movies and inspires heated public debates about whether he is fundamentally good or bad. There’s none of the quasi-ironic hyperfixation that turns him from a person to an abstract icon through phenomena like taping unhinged-looking pictures of Nic Cage around your house.

Maybe that’s because this kind of appreciation, while not necessarily mean, isn’t entirely complimentary. A lot of meme culture involves being obsessed with things you’re a little contemptuous of, divorcing art from its producers as actual human beings. And while Massive Talent might periodically poke fun at Cage, it’s mostly interested in just vibing with him.