If someone randomly told you the premise of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, you’d think it was a joke. Imagine a movie about the actor Nicolas Cage being paid to attend the birthday party of a rich man only to find out the man is an international criminal. The authorities then recruit Cage to work for them to help bring the criminal to justice. It’s beyond ridiculous, and 100% real, which is exactly why it works.
Even in the rare instances when The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent isn’t quite at its best, you get sucked up in its colossal absurdity, big, beating heart, and just enjoy the ride.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent draws much of its inspiration from our reality. A reality where Nicolas Cage was once one of the biggest actors in the world but now works mostly on smaller, weird, sometimes non-theatrical films. So as the film begins, the Cage we meet (played, of course, by Cage himself) is the Cage we now know. He’s not the Cage of the 1990s who won an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas and became an action star with The Rock, Con Air, and Face/Off. He’s a real, rounded human being. A guy struggling to build a relationship with his daughter (Lily Sheen), and desperate for one more big hit to put him back on top. It’s because he’s in this down-and-out position that he accepts the offer his agent (Neil Patrick Harris) presents him. To attend a party thrown by a rich European man named Javi (The Mandalorian’s Pedro Pascal) for $1 million. This is below the Nicolas Cage of 1997. But Cage of 2022? He needs it to survive.
Co-written and directed by Tom Gormican (That Awkward Moment), Massive Talent uses preconceptions beyond just that basic set-up. The script, which Gormican wrote with Kevin Etten, is not only filled with jokes about seemingly every Nicolas Cage movie ever, the idea of fandom itself becomes hugely important. Because, you see, Javi may be an international criminal, but he’s also a massive Nicolas Cage fan. A fact he’s forced to hide in order to make Cage comfortable in what’s clearly an awkward situation for both of them. And it pays off. The bulk of the movie is Javi and Cage developing a realistic, believable, friendship that endears and enriches both characters.
As you’d probably assume, Cage is the perfect actor to play himself. Never for a second do you feel like he’s acting because the Cage we see, for the most part, is the Cage we imagine. He’s smart, articulate, a little odd, and a huge movie nerd. Which is all great, but largely expected—the real revelation in Massive Talent is Pedro Pascal. Everyone loves Pascal for one thing or another. With The Mandalorian, Narcos, Game of Thrones, Wonder Woman 1984, etc., he’s becoming a fairly large star on his own. But here, he gives one of the most wondrous, joyous performances we’ve seen in ages, and one that’s certainly not what we’re used to from him. Javi is a big kid, he walks around with a huge smile, “aw-shucks” energy, and his heart always on his sleeve. It’s not only a delight to watch, but a gleeful bar for Cage to aspire to, and the symbiotic relationship as the two spend time together on screen is magic.
So when the main plot of the film begins to unravel, there’s real nervous energy there to go along with the humor. Eventually, two CIA operatives (Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz) recruit Cage to turn on Javi, but we really don’t want him to. Even if Javi is a deadly killer, Cage has truly begun to care for him, because the friendship has been developed so well. That complimentary balance of character development and narrative execution is then elevated with a steady dose of humor, most of which is geared toward viewers with a working knowledge of Cage’s filmography. The insiderness of it might be detrimental for some viewers, but if you’re the kind of person who might laugh at a joke about the National Treasure DVD extras, which I am, you’ll laugh loud and often.
There are, of course, several action sequences in the film but—due to Gormican’s lack of experience (it’s only his second feature), they largely fall flat. You can’t help but wish one of Cage’s former collaborators like Michael Bay or John Woo were on board to elevate the action. That said, because the character work around those clunky moments is so good that you can forgive them acting mostly as disappointing filler between the humor and performances.
Spells of unexciting direction and a slight over-reliance on movie trivia aside, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a delight. It’s a surprisingly emotional, relatable story of friendship and adulthood anchored by two perfect performances from Cage and Pascal. Then, if you know movies and the career of Nicolas Cage, there’s an added level of excellence. It’s consistently smart and hilarious, with a premise so wild, it continually keeps you guessing and interested. Though it might not be as stylized or bombastic as the story probably could have handled, that it exists at all is a blessing. That it’s mostly awesome on top of that is a miracle.
Oh, and regular io9 readers might be wondering, “Germain, why are you reviewing this? There doesn’t seem to be anything genre about it.” To which I’d point to the trailer reveal that Cage spends significant spells of the movie talking to a younger, digital version of himself. And it’s pretty weird. So it has a small sci-fi-ish throughline! But also, I just really wanted to tell everyone how much I adored it. It’s a film made for film fans, and well worth your time.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is now in theaters.
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