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Does Nicolas Cage Know What He’s Doing?

Does Nicolas Cage Know What He's Doing?

We need to talk about Nicolas Cage.

Or at least R. Emmet Sweeney does, after experiencing the Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers’ CAGED this past weekend. Making a few tweaks to the program mounted at the original Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, the marathon of Con Air, Red Rock West, Vampire’s Kiss and Face/Off showed the prolific, sometimes puzzling, actor at his best and his most outlandish, though whether those two ever overlap is very much open to debate. A recent episode of Community featured a seminar titled “Nicolas Cage: Good or Bad?” but the question is less an A/B proposition than a Zen koan.

The usual line on Cage is that he’s a once-great actor who’s succumbed to the lure of easy paychecks or his own ego or both, caricaturing the manic energy of early career milestones like Raising Arizona — where, Joel Coen said, it was the directors’ job to “sit on” Cage’s outsized mannerisms — in Z-grade junk like Season of the Witch and Drive Angry, perhaps doing the occasional Adaptation or World Trade Center to remind us he can throw something other than a fastball. 

But as Cage told the Guradian last year, he’s “in on the joke,” especially when it comes to something like Neil LaBute’s cartoonish, overtly misogynist remake of The Wicker Man. “[Y]ou don’t go around doing the things that character does — in a bear suit — and not know it’s absurd…. The fact that that movie has been so lambasted means there’s an inner trembling and power to that movie. It has become an electromagnetic movie! And so I love it.”

Still more electromagnetism was on display during the CAGED program, Sweeney writes. He’s especially fond of the black comedy Vampire’s Kiss, whose 1988 release was preceded by features about how Cage age a live cockroach during filming. 

Cage channels everything from John Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to Mick Jagger in his most experimental and uproarious performance, in which his character transforms from clean-cut yuppie to drooling savage — done without makeup or effects aside from the plasticity of Cage’s body…. His face is one thing, his body another, as it skitters and stutters in unpredictable contortions. Jonathan Rosenbaum compared it to Jerry Lewis, while Pauline Kael said Cage does “some of the way-out stuff that you love actors in silent movies for doing.”

It reminded me most of Jim Carrey, who would break out a few years after The Vampire’s Kiss in Ace Ventura. Both wring unpredictable angles out of their angular bodies, though Cage aims to alienate the audience (at one point he eats a live cockroach) while Carrey is serving it. 

I’ll let the implied slur on Jim Carrey pass — expect to note that the arc of Carrey’s career is a fascinating study in alternating pulling his audience close and shoving them away — and focus on the reference to silent-film acting, which places Cage in an entirely different context. He’s clearly capable of subtle naturalism, but like Johnny Depp, he seems most engaged when he’s pushing the limits — the difference being that Depp simultaneously stands outside his own performance, wryly commenting on it, where Cage goes all-in. Watching Cage in the underrated Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, you can practically see him trying to turn himself into a live-action Looney Tune, at which point “cartoonish” is no longer a criticism but a statement of fact.

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