Do you remember the great Bacon Craze of the early 2010s, when it was considered hilarious to burden your friends with bacon-scented candles and bacon-flavored chewing gum as novelty gifts? Do you remember further back, in the mid-aughts, when you could buy “Vote for Pedro” t-shirts at practically any gas station? How about “Mr. T in Your Pocket” talking keychains? “Git-R-Done” trucker hats? Big Mouth Billy Bass?
Imagine someone handing you one of these ancient totems and expecting a full-bellied laugh in return, as if it were the darndest thing you’ve never seen. The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a decade-old Nicolas Cage meme with nothing novel to say about his unique talents or celebrity. It’s a faint but direct echo of the “Not the bees!” YouTube clip that kickstarted the massively talented actor’s meme era in the first place. It offers nothing that Andy Samberg didn’t already accomplish with his “Get in the Cage” segments on SNL an entire decade ago, including bringing in Nicolas Cage as himself to emphasize that he’s in on the bit. It might as well be an I Can Has Cheezburger? coffee table book or Chuck Norris Facts: The Movie; it is that outdated, that useless.
Nicolas Cage stars as two versions of himself: a has-been who can’t land a decent role & an imaginary-friend version of his younger, more successful self that occasionally swoops in for pep talks. Admittedly, it’s fun to watch these two Nic Cages make out in one of the only instant-classic Cagian stunts anyone will remember from this film after the next few months (thanks to its potential for “Not the bees!” style memeage). The problem is that only one of those versions of Nic Cage ever existed in the real world: the imaginary one. He was a genuine Hollywood movie star in his youth; that is undeniable. It’s the positioning of the “real”, modern Nic Cage as a total loser who hasn’t been doing anything worthy of his talents since the action-blockbuster heyday of movies like Face/Off, The Rock, and Con Air that rings embarrassingly false. While a lot of dismissive cynics consider Cage more meme than actor at this point, anyone who’s regularly engaging with his output knows he’s in his full-on auteur period, putting in consistently great, idiosyncratic work for smaller, more niche audiences that are always happy to see him.
Pedro Pascal plays a true believer, a proud member of that niche audience who challenges Cage’s total-loser narrative. His claim that “Mandy is a masterpiece” is the only acknowledgement that the Nicolas Cage brand is still going strong. Most of the other references to his acting work are stuck in his 80s & 90s heyday, citing Guarding Tess & Captain Corelli’s Mandolin as Nic Cage deep cuts. Pascal’s enthusiasm for Cage’s talents makes the film mildly affable, especially as Cage gradually bonds with his #1 fan as a genuine, cherished friend. There’s a plot in which the real-life Nic Cage gets recruited by the CIA for a covert spy mission on Pascal’s remote island compound (again, covering territory already run into the ground by Samberg on Weekend Update), but the movie’s at its sweetest & most recommendable when it focuses on the two dudes just being good buds, talking about movies & enjoying each other’s company. It’s too bad the premise is so outdated and the jokes are such a constant eyeroll. When it’s not commenting on Cage’s memeability or lost celebrity, it’s halfway cute.
I will credit The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent with this: it got me thinking about Nic Cage’s Hollywood celebrity heyday in a way I haven’t engaged with much in recent years. There was once a time when he could play Normal Guys in films like The Family Man & It Could Happen to You without raising an eyebrow. That era has decisively come to an end and is likely worth revisiting, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been doing anything worthwhile in recent years. Nicolas Cage is not a loser. He is not a stale, stagnant meme. He is our best working actor, and he gets more fascinating every year. I likely should have looked to Keith Phipps’s new book Age of Cage for a more nuanced summation of where Cage is currently at (and where he’s already been) instead of expecting that kind of up-to-date critical analysis from a best-bros comedy about the CIA. Still, it’s hard to laugh at a joke you’ve already heard a thousand times before, especially when the setup to the punchlines is no longer anchored to the modern world.