Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
If there’s one thing that has become widely recognised in the last few years, it’s for films to be self-referential (or as the kids would say, ‘meta’). Once upon a time, meta films were few and far between, with gems like Last Action Hero (1993), Being John Malkovich (1999) or Adaptation (2002) being a rarity. Sure, meta films are still relatively infrequent, but the concept is more understood by viewers than ever before. The trick to a successful meta-narrative is to allow the self-awareness to provide just enough humour and context without completely distracting from the story at hand. The viewer still wants to be invested in what’s happening even while they laugh at the referential gags. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) is maybe the best example of this in recent times.
The story follows legendary film actor Nic Cage (played by legendary film actor Nic Cage), who is currently on the fringes of the industry trying to secure a big comeback roll. This pursuit is yielding no results, causing Nic to spiral into a kind of depression. To make matters worse, his ex-wife Olivia (Sharon Horgan) is losing respect for him, as is his daughter Addy (Lily Sheen). As he is considering retiring from acting, Nic is approached by Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal) a billionaire and Nic Cage super-fan who wants Nic to read his new script. However, things take a bizarre turn when Nic is informed by the FBI that Javi is the head of a dangerous crime syndicate responsible for the kidnapping of a powerful diplomat’s daughter. Given his budding friendship with Javi, Nic is enlisted to be the FBI’s man on the inside with the mission of bringing Javi down.
Right from the word go, you can see what the main joke is: we are seeing Nic Cage become embroiled in exactly the kind of adventure that Nic Cage himself used to star in. It’s a wonderfully absurd premise that you can’t help but laugh at, but happily those laughs are well managed and intentional. For those familiar with Nic Cage’s filmography, the references, callbacks and in-jokes practically never cease, yet they never distract from the story at hand for those unfamiliar. This is achieved through the clever plot mechanics, which provides all the necessary context regardless of whether you’re a fan or not. Even If you haven’t seen The Rock (1996), Con Air (1997) or Face/Off (1997), you’re given enough information to understand why it’s funny to see the ‘real life’ Nic Cage turn into a similarly outlandish action hero.
The meta-commentary extends further than just Nic Cage jokes, as the film takes the time to poke fun at the film industry in general. To be fair, films mocking films is nothing new, so it’s entirely possible that viewers may find the cheeky plot to be smug and annoying. Thankfully, that will probably be the exception to rule, as The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is rather elegant with its industry analysis. Even if this story didn’t feature a fictionalised version of Nic Cage, it would still be an effecting, funny and functional narrative about an actor coming to terms with his relevance as a creative force, as well as his worth as a source of inspiration. Therefore, the thematic winks and nods to the wider cinematic landscape actually feel necessary.
This is especially helpful, considering the action plot itself wouldn’t be able to hold the viewer’s attention on its own. The shootouts, punch ups, car chases and escapes are all well crafted, enjoyable and hilarious, but the catalyst holding it all together is really just a placeholder to get the ball rolling. If you’ve seen a single action thriller involving crime cartels, you’ll be able to figure out the twists and turns way ahead of time, as none of it breaks from the established mould. On the plus side, it’s not a huge issue considering the film is totally aware that the plot is only here to further the character arcs.
Thankfully, the central character arcs succeed in making up the difference, as you come to care about Nic, Javi, Addy and so on without even realising it. At first you’re just laughing along with this lunacy, but before long you find yourself sympathising with both the supposed ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’. As the stakes increase and the conflict between Nic and Javi heats up, your belief in their friendship also heats up. The film takes you on a hilarious roller coaster, all the while gradually building an enjoyable and loveable bond between the central figures. The mix of hilarity and genuine bonding reaches a peak during what has to be one of the most original (and surprisingly clever) drug bender scenes in cinematic history.
Nic Cage is of course at the core of the entire piece, delivering his best performance in years. Cage’s reputation is wholly unique, as he is widely considered by many to be one of the best actors of all time, as well as one of the worst. There’s really no other actor who is both an icon and a joke, but in truth Nic Cage has always been a joy to watch. While you’d probably expect his performance here to be as outrageous as anything he’s ever done, he actually turns in a very understated performance (by his standards). The film does find a clever (and bizarre) way to address his more manic tendencies, but for the most part this is the most introspective turn we’ve ever received from Cage.
Given that The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent does nothing to shy away from Nic Cage’s singular flare, most audiences have probably made up their minds as to whether or not they’ll see this. Cage fans will undoubtedly find a lot to love, yet naysayers may be harder to convince. For those on the fence, it’s quite likely The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent will be incredibly endearing, thus creating hoards of new Cage fans.
Best way to watch it: As a palette cleanser after binging the Nic Cage holy trinity: The Rock, Face/Off and Con Air.