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► The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent is in UK cinemas now.

“I wouldn’t recommend a life in the arts,” Nicolas Cage (Nicolas Cage) slurs across a grand piano to a gaggle of teenagers. They’re in the living room of the home Cage used to share with his ex-wife Olivia (Sharon Horgan) and daughter Addy (Lily Sheen), whose birthday celebrations he derails by insistently crooning a half-baked ballad, supposedly in Addy’s honour. Eyes roll at the heedless narcissism.

A tongue-in-cheek caper starring Cage as a fictionalised version of himself in the throes of a midlife crisis, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is goofily self-aware enough to avoid such pompous self-importance itself: the title offers its own kind of inoculation and, crucially, Cage strikes a charming balance of self-parody and self-deprecation. (The actor has also insisted he repeatedly rebuffed the movie, bringing to mind Shakespeare’s Richard III refusing the crown.)

The film eventually breaks up on the rocks of self-awareness, but it’s scuppered less by questions of tone than of genre: it’s not that it disappears up itself out of self-regard, more that it insists on plying us with clever-clever but so-so action-movie tropes which distract from the potentially endearing character work at its core. “I can’t stand talky comedies,” Cage observes at one point. “You’ve got to have some plot to drive it forward.” It’s a self-referential line, of course, but one the film takes too much to heart.

The set-up presents Cage on the rocks, his family life a mess, his career plateaued, his finances a mess. Having failed to secure a plum role as a Boston gangland King Lear type, he dejectedly accepts a big-money offer to attend a private party at a luxury compound in Mallorca. This scenic-ish spot is home to Javi (Pedro Pascal), supposedly an olive oil magnate (shades of Don Corleone), who’s a Cage superfan and has a draft of a screenplay he’d love the star to cast an eye over, if he has time.

Soon, things escalate: a politician’s daughter has been kidnapped, CIA operatives are snooping around and before long Cage is simultaneously working with Javi on script ideas and taking on covert surveillance duties, all the while struggling to work on his family issues back home. Capers of various stripes ensue, taking in not only hi-tech espionage, car chases and shoot-outs but also stoner slapstick and prosthetic-based goofing around.

Nicolas Cage and Pedro Pascal as Nic and Javi
Nicolas Cage and Pedro Pascal as Nic and Javi
© Lionsgate UK

The high-concept plot-driven escalation is disappointing because when the picture was a talky comedy, things were going well. The whole enterprise is, of course, predicated on satirising Cage’s career and persona, and writers Tom Gormican (who also directs) and Kevin Etten deliver plenty of fan-service Easter eggs while striking surprisingly nice character notes too. High-octane Cage vehicles like Con Air and Face/Off (both 1997) are brought into play, through formal quotation and the deployment of recognisable props and costumes. But attention is also paid to less obviously fanboyish titles such as the Francis Ford Coppola time-travel romance Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) and the bodyguard comedy Guarding Tess (1994).

In terms of Cage’s own performance, there are the expected instances of histrionic screen-filling, including uncannily creepy apparitions of a version of his younger self, around the time of Wild at Heart, as a kind of Jiminy Cricket figure intent on recuperating full-blown movie-stardom. But there are rather more moments of almost naïve self-reflection and aspiration, which Cage imbues with a sad-sack understatement. Even his narcissism is pretentious rather than monstrous.

Also quite effective is the buddy dynamic between Cage and Javi, which frames these differently powerful men as overgrown boys geeking out on movie lore while searching for meaning in their lives. Cherished items of Cage paraphernalia from Javi’s collection pop up as gags and plot points but the pair also establish a convincing rapport as friends and brothers in arms, bonding sweetly over Paddington 2.

The film’s women characters are less well served, being long-suffering, jeopardised or unceremoniously dispatched – though Horgan and Tiffany Haddish, as one of Cage’s no-nonsense CIA handlers, do well with the material they’re given.

The longer the film goes on, the more the by-the-numbers action farce material takes over, dragged along by contrived and nonsensical plot developments and underlined by an insistently on-the-nose score. The line grows increasingly porous between airing knowingly meta references about the established expectations of formulaic genre narrative and simply dishing it out. Such, perhaps, are the vagaries of a life in the arts.

The method and madness of Nicolas Cage

“Legendary”, they've called Cage’s performance in the new Kiss of Death. Is he worth such praise? Or is he still in Brando’s shadow? These were the questions asked by this feature, which first appeared in our June 1995 issue.

By Manohla Dargis

The method and madness of Nicolas Cage