Sunday, June 12, 2022

"The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent": review

Nicolas Cage stars in the 2022 comedy "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent," co-written and directed by Tom Gormican (who?). The story focuses on a fictional version of Nic Cage at a moment in his career where he's down on his luck and no longer getting the primo screen roles. In the spirit of "Everything, Everywhere, All at Once," I guess we could call this an alternate-universe take on the real Nic Cage. As such, the movie doesn't really break any new ground: meta films in which actors play fictionalized versions of themselves have been around for years, a recent example being "This Is the End." "Unbearable" also stars Pedro Pascal, Sharon Horgan, Tiffany Haddish, Ike Barinholtz, Lily Sheen, Paco León, Alessandra Mastronardi, Neil Patrick Harris, and Katrin Vankova (barely in the movie, but the person who gets the plot rolling). The movie's title is a shameless riff off Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which got made into a movie.

In Spain, Maria (Vankova) and a guy friend are watching a Nicolas Cage movie. Maria has a fangirlish crush on Cage that borders on the sexual. As the two are watching the movie, a group of armed kidnapers breaks in and grabs Maria, who is the daughter of a tough-on-crime presidential candidate. Meanwhile, on the US west coast, "Nick Cage" (not Nic Cage) is an older, down-on-his-luck actor who once basked in fame but now has trouble landing juicy roles. Nick's agent Richard Fink (Harris) tells Nick about a million-dollar offer to attend a birthday party in Spain. Nick, divorced and essentially living in a hotel, owes the hotel $600,000, and he has other debts, so doing this gig might help him get on top of his situation. Nick reluctantly accepts the offer and goes to Spain. Upon landing, he is spied on by a pair of US government agents, Vicky (Haddish) and Martin (Barinholtz, who looks for all the world like a Wahlberg brother). Nick is met by Javi Gutierrez (Pascal), a rich superfan of Nick's. Gutierrez had sent Nick's agent a screenplay, which Nick never read. Javi is overwhelmed to meet Nick in person, and he is thrilled that Nick is there to help him celebrate his birthday. But there's a wrinkle: agents Vicky and Martin catch up to Nick and tell him he has to help the US government spy on Javi, whom they suspect of being (1) a massive arms dealer with a long trail of dead bodies behind him, and (2) Maria's kidnapper. Nick, meanwhile, has warmed up to Javi, whom he initially saw as just another crazy fan. Javi, it turns out, loves movies, shares Nick's taste in movies, has a shrine to Nick, and is brimming with movie ideas that are actually good. Nick can't bring himself to believe that the Javi he is coming to know is a cold-blooded murderer.

The rest of the movie plays out like a screwball comedy, and it manages, somehow, to get even more meta than just "an actor plays a fictionalized version of himself" meta: we get all the way to "movie in a movie" meta. Is Javi the man the CIA thinks he is? Will Nick snap out of his creative funk, land a decent role, and repair the broken relationship he has with his ex-wife (Horgan) and daughter (Sheen)? Will he even make it out of Spain alive? You, Dear Reader, will have to watch the movie for yourself and find out.

Screwball comedies come from another decade. They occasionally make comebacks: a Pink Panther movie here, an "A Fish Called Wanda" there... such comedies usually involve a lot of mugging and open silliness, and they're very light-hearted. They don't carry much subtext, although "Unbearable" seems to operate on several levels at once. When I'm in the right mood, a screwball comedy is just the thing, but I'm not sure I was in the right mood for this particular comedy. As I said earlier, the notion of actors playing fictionalized versions of themselves has been done many times over, so there's nothing original there, although we can give the real Nic Cage props for lampooning himself and his career in this way. (In the movie, Cage is tormented by visions of a much-younger 80s- or 90s-era version of himself, "Nicky," who is constantly reminding Nick of his glory days.) Pedro Pascal also engages in a lot of mugging for the camera, and were I in a different mood, his acting might have been funnier. I like Pascal as an actor generally, although I think he is too often typecast in roles where he has to speak English with a Spanish accent (Pascal, who is Chilean-American, is a native English-speaker who speaks perfectly unaccented American English).

To be sure, "Unbearable" contains plenty of funny moments, especially when Javi convinces Nick to summon his inner actor to carry them dramatically through a situation—watch especially for a scene involving a wall while both guys are tripping balls on LSD. But the movie didn't seem to want to mine the comedic potential of its premise very deeply. The LSD scene, for example, could have been done in a much more immersive and surrealistic way. And the film's self-awareness about its meta-movie status didn't translate into anything hard-hitting; it felt, to me, as if the screenwriters were pulling their punches. In this story, Nick Cage has an Irish ex-wife who says "Fuck" a lot, as if that in itself is enough to be funny. It isn't. It also didn't help that Cage, who's getting on in years, now (he's on the cliff's edge of 60), still goes around with perfectly brown, obviously dyed hair. Further, there's the problem of Maria (and how do you solve a problem like Maria?), who serves as little more than a plot device. It's established that she idolizes Cage, and you can predict, from the way the plot is going, that Cage will eventually have to rescue her from captivity, but when the two finally come face to face, all Maria says is, "That's fucking cool!" and that's about it. No fireworks, no perverse sexual tension from a young female fan, nothing. Maria (who is distractingly pretty) gets kicked to the curb once her usefulness to the plot comes to an end.

So while I give "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent" credit for making some effort to give us a funny, meta story about Nick Cage and his crazy-rich fanboy friend, I wasn't totally sold. Granted, the buddy-movie relationship between Javi and Nick is one of the movie's best points, and the film, as a whole, feels as if it's supposed to be some sort of tribute to the career of the real-life Nic Cage (who has, lately, been making something of a comeback—see "Mandy" and "Pig"). And yes, the protagonist does have something of a shallow character arc: he goes from being totally career-obsessed to showing a bit more interest in his family, but even that is not enough to rescue the movie from all of its wasted potential. A lot of critics ended up liking this film, and while I don't hate it, I can't honestly give it much more than a noncommittal "meh." To my mind, "Unbearable" could have been so much more.


John Mac said...

I'm so glad that you watch movies, so I don't have to! This one does sound mildly amusing, at least.

I got to wondering if the real-life Mr. Cage still has that Korean wife. So far, I haven't cared enough to Google it, though.

Kevin Kim said...

That was the first thing I thought when I saw his "movie" wife. Alice Kim turns out to have been Cage's third wife (2004-2016). He's on his fifth wife now: Riko Shibata.

John Mac said...

Five wives? Wow, my hero! I've only had four women consent to marriage. One of the "lines" I use when I meet a new female is, "I'm looking for my future ex-wife." No wonder I'm single.