Director: Tom Gormican
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Tiffany Haddish, Pedro Pascal
There’s a bit early on in Adaptation. in which addled screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) stresses how much he wants to avoid the pitfalls of the cliché Hollywood thriller.
“I don’t want to cram in sex or guns or car chases, you know… or characters, you know, learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end,” he says, growing increasingly hot-tempered and sweaty. Cage plays it magically. Indeed, it’s one of the best performances from an oft-undervalued actor (he lost the Oscar to Sean fucking Penn).
Of course, by the end of Adaptation. poor Charlie is beset by the trappings of an action thriller. We perhaps only remember after the movie has ended how it so knowingly prefigured this spiral into rote chaos. Kaufman himself – the writer of the picture who made a version of himself the centre of his screenplay – knows how to portion out his wry set-up. The metatextuality isn’t exactly underplayed in Adaptation., but it is subtle enough to read as caustic, thoughtful, witty.
Such dreams for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.
Here – not wholly dissimilarly – we have Nicolas Cage playing himself. Or, more accurately, a version of himself. We join him in LA, questioning whether or not to throw in the towel, chiefly over the growing guilt he feels for choosing his career over time with his family. Hard up thanks to his rash of debts, Cage agrees to attend a rich Spaniard’s party in Mallorca, in exchange for $1mil. Before you know it, he’s wandered into the plot of that one Alan Partridge episode about a creepy super-fan, only with added CIA shenanigans.
Pedro Pascal (relaxing further into a year of lamentable comedic roles) plays Javi, his flamboyant number one fan who might also be a ruthless cartel boss. Strong-armed by the feds to play the role of a lifetime undercover, Cage finds himself torn between snooping on his new acquaintance and becoming best buds with him.
What follows is amiable enough, but it squanders the potential of it’s own conceit. Having gotten us this far, Tom Gormican’s movie loses faith in it’s own gimmick (and it is very much a gimmick). Massive Talent is resplendent with references to Cage’s career, but such nods are like a fine surface dusting of sugar sweetening a stale pie. Their very lightness suggests that this could’ve been written with any number of other actors of a certain age and legacy in mind (for instance John Travolta… Robert De Niro… basically anyone who’s best work ended when they met Quentin Tarantino). The opportunity to use it to fully invest in Cage’s uniqueness as an actor isn’t there, aside from getting him to shout wildly a couple of times.
What plays out, then, is an increasingly uninteresting mid-tier Liam Neeson kidnapping adventure crossed with Mr. Bean’s Holiday. All right. It’s not quite that bad. Cage and Pascal riff nicely off of one another, and Massive Talent remains at it’s most spirited when it matches them up to take on… nothing at all (a mid-film acid trip glides through pedestrian material on cruise control, but at least you can feel the wind in your hair). Still, Pascal’s presence brings us to another glaring reason why Massive Talent doesn’t really work.
So much of this movie leans on the idea that this is the real Nicolas Cage. That he’s doing things in the world and people recognise him. But the cast is studded with other very recognisable actors – Pedro Pascal, Neil Patrick Harris, Tiffany Haddish, that one guy I thought was Donnie Wahlberg for a while. The presence of these similarly-famous players works against the central conceit that we’ve stepped out of the cinematic world into something more real. Gormican’s presentation similarly works against him. He keeps things glossy, cuts quickly, has a very overbearing score, etc. etc. Credibility is difficult to maintain under these conditions, but it is shattered the moment we recognise anyone other than Cage.
Sure, it’s a wacky comedy foremost designed to allow Cage to play in the sandbox of his own screen persona. But unless you build this kind of thing a certain way, there’s no containing the sand. Adaptation. placed Cage alongside the likes of Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper, but you still believed in it’s world because of the care and attention from Kaufman and director Spike Jonze to play things at a lower register. There’s no sense of a similar effort here. No sense of humility or truth. Cage is dutifully lionised (although his spiky, early career is oddly mocked), but beyond that the movie’s intentions are as wispy as it’s patriotic fealty to the CIA.
Cage puts the effort in, the way he always puts the effort in. The man’s a workhorse. Skim through his recent online AMA and you’ll receive a flattering portrait of a craftsman who is erudite, humble, yet enormously proud of his work. With good reason. He has no reason to regret The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent and walks away with his head held high. The same can’t be said for many of those who surround him.
It’s feel like more of an unbearable waste.