Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival. Lionsgate releases the film in theaters on Friday, April 22.
Depending on your taste, the idea of Nicolas Cage playing himself either sounds like a self-indulgent disaster or the most fun you’ve had at a movie in years. Fortunately, even the most Cage-ambivalent will have to admit “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is solidly the latter. The meta-comedy sees the fictional movie star “Nick Cage” working with the CIA to solve a political kidnapping by the Spanish mafia, all while having a cinephile bromance with a mega-fan played by Pedro Pascal. Though movie references and Cage quotes abound, there’s something for everyone in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.” It’s one of the funniest movies of the year.
Directed by Tom Gormican from a script he wrote with Kevin Etten, the zippy meta-comedy plays like a fan letter to Cage from someone who’s not only seen a lot of movies, but has good taste. Toggling between Hollywood insider comedy to spy thriller to bromance, at times it feels like the movie is threading the world’s most ridiculous needle. What begins as a highbrow episode of “Entourage” quickly turns into a hilarious spy spoof grounded by a genuine friendship love story between adult men. It works not only because Cage and Pascal are truly brilliant together, but because the movie conjures a world that, however ridiculous, makes its own rules and follows them.
Fictional Cage, who goes by Nick for most of the movie, is a movie star who’s down on his luck. The movie opens with Nick accosting the director of a project he set his sights on, which he says could be his “King Lear.” Both his daughter (Lily Sheen) and ex-wife (the fantastic Sharon Horgan) are fed-up with his narcissistic movie star routine, and he’s in debt due to his lavish lifestyle. When his agent (Neil Patrick Harris) brings him an offer to appear at a birthday party in Mallorca for a million dollar payday, he has no choice but to reluctantly accept. (A very Hollywood spa meeting where they get flogged with branches together is a delight.)
Throughout the movie Nick is visited by Nicky, a mop-haired specter of his younger self who glows with either the folly of youth or tons of plastic surgery. Whichever it is, that unsettling de-aging CGI effect works oddly well in this context — it’s supposed to be weird. In interviews, the real Cage said this character was what interested him most about the project, an admission that reveals more about him than the actual movie does. Nicky has streaked blonde Marilyn Manson hair and hounds Nick about his career choices, shouting: “You’re not an actor, you’re a fucking movie star!” Nicky’s worst nightmare is that Nick play “the gay uncle in the next Duplass brothers movie.”
If Nicky is the fame-hungry devil on Nick’s shoulder, then Javi (Pascal) is his creatively aligned angel. Unbeknownst to Nick, Javi has a screenplay he’s itching for Nick to read, and nurses pipe dreams of someday working with him. After a few drinks, they discover their shared love of cinema, which includes “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (cinephiles will enjoy a running “Dr. Caligari” gag). When two CIA officers (Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz) contact Nick, revealing that Javi is the head of a major Spanish crime organization who kidnapped a teenage girl for political reasons, Nick genuinely mourns the loss of their blossoming bromance.
When Nick must draw on his considerable talents to save the young girl (and symbolically repair his relationship with his daughter), he muses on the similarities between espionage and acting. To maintain his cover with Javi and extend his stay on the compound, he agrees to develop a script with his new friend. Thus begin the movie’s most meta elements, which unsurprisingly are also its most self-indulgent.
Though it’s funny to hear Nick wax poetic about movies, things get a little winking when Nick starts saying things like, “I can’t stand talky comedies. It’s gotta have some plot to move it forward.” We’ve long gotten the point by the time Nick says, “It’s time to figure out how this thing ends.” But it’s only because the movie has so succeeded at its professed plot-driven comedy that these lines feel unnecessary. There’s a lot going on, but for the most part it all comes together. The script is smart enough to translate without such blatant nods at what it’s doing — and the audience is, too.
Another key reason the movie works is the chemistry between Cage and Pascal; a crackling harmony between two dramatic actors who can also do comedy riffing wildly. Pascal is an avowed Cage fan himself, though he doesn’t have a life-size wax figure of the actor in his secret villain lair like Javi does. As the characters push each other further off the deep end, so do the actors, raising the stakes with each exchange. Their appealing synergy begs the question: could Pedro Pascal be the next Nicolas Cage? Maybe there’s room for two.
“The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” premiered at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival.