‘The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent’ Review
There are basically two movies at war with each other in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.
The first is a meta-conceptual examination of the career of Nicolas Cage, an actor whose work is always interesting even if the movies he has starred in recently tend, more often than not, not to be. (This is The Nicolas Cage Paradox.) Cage plays “Nick Cage,” the actor from The Rock and TheCroods 2, and Nick, like Nic, is broke, burdened by debt, flustered by insinuations that he works too much, and arguing with an imaginary, younger version of himself about whether he is an “actor” or a “movie star.”
The second movie is a fairly straightforward mid-budget studio-funded action-comedy, one in which Cage travels to Mallorca to attend a birthday party for international drug lord Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal), who may or may not have kidnapped the daughter of a presidential candidate in order to ensure the drugs keep flowing. Cage is tapped by American intelligence operatives Vivan and Martin (Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz) to try and save the girl by helping them see what’s going on in Javi’s compound.
The first movie is pretty interesting, giving Cage space to work within himself and play with public conceptions of how he chooses to make the movies he chooses to make. It’s also an amusing satire of Hollywood with some sly jokes (David Gordon Green plays a director Cage is trying to woo and I’m always up for a good mumblecore gibe). The second movie is pretty blah, the sort of thing where the best jokes are in the trailer, the plotting is slapdash, and supporting characters exist solely to serve up narrative points rather than live a fully realized life of their own.
Unfortunately, the second iteration of Unbearable Weight takes up the vast majority of the film’s runtime.
As I was leaving The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent—a movie that closes with the imaginary Wild at Heart-era Cage screaming “Nicolas fuuuuuuuuuuccccckkkkkkkkinnnnnng Cage!” offscreen over the backdrop of Hollywood as we fade to black—I couldn’t help but think of Adaptation. Because The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent plays a little like an unironic reimagining of that 2002 Spike Jonze drama.
In it, Cage plays Charlie Kaufman (who wrote the movie in real life, as well as Being John Malkovich and other quirky indie pictures) and Donald Kaufman (who does not exist in our world yet is very real in the world of Adaptation). The film, which is genuinely brilliant and remains a biting satire of Hollywood’s struggle between artistic achievement and commercial success two decades later, is all about Charlie Kaufman’s struggle to adapt Susan Orlean’s book about orchids for the big screen.
The Orchid Thief is the sort of book that’s hard to turn into a movie because it doesn’t lend itself to drama. It’s nominally about a guy who wants to find and reproduce a rare flower found in the swamps of Florida. But it’s really about obsession and passion and fandom. And these things can be cinematic, of course, but only if they’re wedded to a narrative that doesn’t much resemble what’s in the book.
Charlie is an artist and stuck on the screenplay, the due date of which is coming up quickly. His brother, Donald, is a hack, the sort of guy who writes high-concept thrillers about killers with multiple personalities.* And so he does what a hack would do and suggests Charlie go to real-life screenwriting guru Robert McKee’s (Brian Cox) seminar to break through his writer’s block, leading to the memorable moment when Charlie Kaufman’s panicked internal monologue is interrupted by McKee bellowing “And God help you if you use voiceover in your work, my friends. God help you. It’s flaccid, sloppy writing.”
Following this intervention, Adaptation takes the tone of a standard Hollywood thriller, with drug abuse and car chases and tawdry sex. It’s a clever joke. And you get the sense that The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is trying something similar here, given the way that Cage is doubled via a hideous computer-de-aged clone of himself from one of his most manic performances, given how he and Javi collaborate on a hacky screenplay together, given how that screenplay merges into the film itself as Unbearable Weight ends.
Whereas Adaptation’s finale served as critique, Unbearable Weight’s feels like surrender. It’s an acceptance of the fact that we live in a world where this gets put on more than 3,000 screens while Pig—Cage’s best work in years and a genuine artistic achievement—tops out at 588. Cage remains a massive talent; I just find it somewhat unbearable to watch him in mediocre stuff like this.
*As an aside: When I saw this movie either in 2002 or 2003 at the University of Virginia’s student-run theater, the only trailer that played with it was for Identity, a high-concept thriller about a killer with multiple personalities. I always thought this was a clever meta-joke by the guys running the theater.