Nicolas Cage: Unhinged Oddball, National Treasure
A tribute to The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent star as he turns a meta comedy into a full-circle victory lap
IT Takes a very special actor to turn the alphabet into an aria of weirdness. But there’s Nicolas Cage, young and handsome in a 1980s Italian power suit, losing his cool after being told a contract’s been misfiled. His response is screaming the alphabet: A! B! C! D!!! As he shrieks his way through, yes, all 26 letters, the volume increases and the movements ramp up to an interpretive dance, or maybe an Italian wise guy having a seizure. It ends with Cage, arms crossed and in full toddler-temper-tantrum mode, declaring
“I’ve never misfiled anything. Not once!”
This jaw-dropping display is from Vampire’s Kiss, a.k.a. the 1989 movie in which the actor ate a live cockroach on camera, and a strong contender for what we’ll call “Peak Cage.” Maybe your pick would be his declaration that a snakeskin jacket is a symbol of his individuality and belief in personal freedom, all uttered in a single breath, in 1990’s Wild at Heart. Or you’d go with the opening shot of Leaving Las Vegas, the 1995 drama about an alcoholic writer that won Cage his only Oscar to date, where he saunters down a liquor aisle, dancing as he fills a shopping cart with bottle after bottle. Like so much Peak Cage, it’s ridiculous and sublime, poetic and nonsensical, giggle-inducing and soul-destroying all at once.
Every Cage fan has a handful of these moments. Not every fan would sucker the iconoclastic star into going to a desert island and force him to act out his best-known roles, however, which is the premise behind The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, the meta comedy that hits theaters on April 22. Featuring Cage as a fictional version of himself — the role he was born to play! — the movie finds the 58-year-old actor accepting $1 million for a billionaire’s birthday-party appearance. Except the host is holding the star’s family hostage, and the price for their freedom is getting his guest to reenact the greatest hits from the cinema du Cage canon.
It’s a particularly good moment to be a Nicole Cage fan. His work in last year’s Pig, an intimate character study about a reclusive chef in search of his prize truffle-sniffing pet, has earned him some of the best reviews of his career. Age of Cage, a book by Rolling STone contributor Keith Phipps that dives deep into Cage’s work, has just hit shelves. And there’s Unbearable, which appears to mine a rich legacy of Peak Cage intensity in the name of both laughs and an affectionate tribute. It feels like we can finally reassess what’s been a long, strange 40-year trip without forcing the actor into being a full-time genius or a punchline.
Cage has been declared both over the years, but you could see that there was something unusual about him from the moment you saw his young, scruffy punk rocker in Valley Girl (1983), a guy hot enough to be a teen-comedy
Caption dreamboat but just enough of an oddball to here corit scrape against audi the od typical hunk-with-heart-ofgold conventions. You immediately wanted to see what this guy would do whenever he showed up onscreen.
For the next 12 years, he’d ping-pong between leading-men roles — is there a more
hopeless romantic than Ronny Cammareri, the one-handed, opera-loving baker who sweeps Cher off her feet in Moonstruck? — and lunatics. Watch those movies now and you see how he’d hit the middle point between those opposites, and for every interesting mistake (his voice in Peggy Sue Got Married, which Cage claimed was inspired by Gumby’s horse, Pokey), you get something like his walking, talking Looney Tune in Raising Arizona, or his retro-hipster Romeo in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart. Who else could pull off the latter’s perfect melding of sex appeal, surrealism, and rebel-without-a-clue sincerity? Who else could turn a line like “You filthy piece of white . . . trash?” into a question and still make it work?
That fertile part of his career peaks with Leaving Las Vegas, which adds pathos to his onscreen volatility and momentarily coronates him as Mr. Cage, Serious Actor. Which makes the transition to action hero a bit confusing. The Rock (1996) essentially drops a typical Cage eccentric — the nerdy Beatles obsessive Stanley Goodspeed — into a Michael Bay movie as a way of spicing things up. By Con Air (1997), he’s the pumpedup main attraction. The final entry of his post-Oscar multiplex-spectacle trifecta, Face/ Off (also 1997), gives him a lot of room to display his chops and color outside the lines. Maybe this detour is the start of something wonderful?
What happens next is a series of occasional highs and a whole lot of lows. He works with some name directors, like Spike Jonze ( Adaptation, which deservedly nabs Cage a second Oscar nomination) and Ridley Scott ( Matchstick Men). An Indiana Jones- lite franchise via National Treasure keeps him in the spotlight.
When he plays a superhero ( Ghost Rider), Cage mostly exercises what he’s called his “Western Kabuki” (read: loud and unhinged) style of acting. Check out the “Not the bees!” meme from his 2006 Wicker Man remake and you’ll see what we mean. Well-publicized financial woes prompt him to sign up for films that mainly trade off his star power and this-performancegoes-to-11 outrageousness.
It wasn’t like he ever left: You could still hear his voice in animated movies like The Croods and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, still find a diamond like 2018’s revenge movie Mandy glittering in the dung heap. But with Pig, Cage had a chance to play someone quiet, numb, still wounded from tragedy, and left adrift in a world that prized flashiness over substance. You witness something besides self-parody. He reminds you he could press pause on the sound and fury.
Coming off the heels of that triumph, the time now feels right to give the public something like Unbearable Weight — what could have been a mournful trip down memory lane for fans now comes off like a victory lap. Having proven he can still bring his A game, we can watch him send up his C-list status. And maybe, just maybe, we can witness an older and wiser Cage scream the alphabet one more time — not in the name of reliving his glory days, but reclaiming something old in the name of starting some bold new chapter.