The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent Review: Nicolas Cage Is Nicolas Cage [SXSW]

Nicolas Cage. Actor. Movie star. Meme. And generally, all three at once as part of a career that defies logical explanation. A weirdo character actor and an Oscar winner and an action hero and a seemingly fallen star stuck in a tragic loop of C-list nonsense to pay off a never-vanishing tax bill — Cage is such a character in the eyes of the public that it was only a matter of time before he became a movie character himself.

"The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent" is a movie that feels like it was pitched alongside a giant pile of Nicolas Cage memes, but its success is due to its strangely nuanced tone, where its star plays alongside the joke instead of playing into it. Cage, cast as himself, is often nuanced, generally restrained, and painfully, awkwardly human ... but he's playing a performer who doesn't let the boundaries of traditional acting restrain him. The film walks a high-wire. This is not a movie about the weirdo from the YouTube compilation of his strangest moments in "The Wicker Man," but rather a movie about the man who plays that weirdo.

And while Cage is a lot of fun here, it's a bit startling to watch his co-star, the ever-rising Pedro Pascal, grab the movie and walk away with it. That's the Nicolas Cage curse, one supposes. Always one step behind the comeback that will make everything right.

Despite all my range...

Pascal ("Game of Thrones" and "The Mandalorian") plays Javi Gutierrez, an obscenely wealthy movie fan who invites a down-on-his-luck Nicolas Cage to attend his birthday party for the un-turn-down-able price of $1 million. Cage's life and finances are a mess — his daughter hates him, he can't secure decent acting work, and he's literally haunted by himself, a figment of his imagination that dials his every meme'd impulse up to 11. These scenes are the ones you'll find ripped to YouTube the fastest, as restrained Cage plays alongside unhinged Cage, the wild young man who wants to know how it got burned, declares that he's a vampire before eating a live cockroach, and who once headlined a David Lynch movie. Yes, these moments are funny as hell. For many, they will be worth the price of admission.

But the real joy comes when Cage and Pascal share the screen, and Javi, the shy kajillionaire, slowly lets his Cage fan flag fly. He credits Cage's work with keeping him upright in his darkest hours, maintaining a small museum of Cage artifacts that movie fans will surely want to examine and re-examine for Easter eggs. Major blockbusters like "Con Air" and "Face Off" are referenced, alongside more niche titles like "Mandy" (a masterpiece, one character rightly declares) and "Guarding Tess" (the unlikely subject of a major plot point).

But this artist/fanboy relationship blossoms into a bonafide bromance, as Javi and Nicolas Cage learn that they're made for each other. Instant buddies. Platonic life partners. BFFs. They even watch "Paddington 2" together, a delightful moment in a film chock-full of them. Pascal and Cage share an easygoing chemistry, and the scenes of them hanging out, driving around the Spanish coast, getting high on LSD, and trying to fix each other's lives are a delight. And while Cage is very fun here, it's easy to see why Pascal is currently being cast in every TV show and movie in existence — he's hilarious, sweet, disarming, and seemingly unafraid to be completely silly in service of character or plot. One could argue that Pascal, the complete package of actor, movie star, and weirdo, is being a better Nicolas Cage right now than Nicolas Cage is.

I'm still just a rat in a (Nicolas) Cage

Unfortunately, the movie has to find time for the other side of the plot. You see, Javi is so rich because he's a dangerous man, the leader of a weapons cartel who has seemingly abducted a politician's daughter and plans to execute her. Cage, already roped in for the birthday party, is recruited by the CIA to spy on his new buddy and report the details. These scenes are like a hat on top of a hat, or another scoop of ice cream on top of the sundae. It sounds great, and it sounds silly, and it sounds wild enough to work, but these scenes never gel. Director Tom Gormican is clearly more comfortable with the Linklater and Apatow-esque scenes of Javi and Nic just being dudes than he is with the espionage stuff, which ends up feeling dull in comparison to Cage and Pacal's lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry. As Cage's CIA handlers, Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz feel a bit lost, scrambling to find the comedy in their infinite reams of exposition.

This plotline takes over the movie entirely in its third act, leading to a conclusion that is a bit too much like the lousy B-movies Cage has been making in recent years to live up to the uproarious joys of the first hour and change. Not even a number of meta-references about how so many adult dramas about real people, man, need action beats to get made can soften it.

But when "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent" is good, it's really good, and the kind of gonzo project that has no right to exist. Maybe the CIA plotline was needed to get the movie off the ground (as the script itself slyly suggests), and Gormican and company just chose to have as much fun as humanly possible with the central bromance and hoped for the best with the rest. Two hours of Javi and Nic talking about German expressionist filmmaking and swapping story notes, while nirvana for some folks, wouldn't look as good in trailers as Nicolas Cage screaming with a gun in his hand. It can't help but feel like a compromise.

Still, this is a hard film to dislike. Cage brings what you'd expect, Pascal brings even more, and their awkward, adorable, genuine kinship represents how so many of us feel about Cage these days. We're all admirers, and maybe we were embarrassed about it for a little while, but not anymore.

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10