What Nicolas Cage Understands About Being a Movie Star

The actor’s latest, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, goes beyond the memes and eccentricities to uncover a deeper truth.

Nicolas Cage wearing sunglasses on a beach
Katalin Vermes / Lionsgate

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, the film in which Nicolas Cage plays himself, seems like the kind of project made just so he can go full “Nicolas Cage.” The story follows “Nick,” a fictionalized version of the actor, as he travels to Mallorca for a superfan’s birthday party, and it offers plenty of chances for Cage to get really, really weird. He gets roped into spying on the superfan, a man named Javi (played by Pedro Pascal), for the CIA. He frequently imagines conversations with “Nicky,” his younger, Wild at Heart–era self. And he spends a significant chunk of the film writing a movie about himself and Javi while dosing on LSD. Off-screen, the actor has long cultivated a larger-than-life persona: He’s the guy who owns two castles and calls his acting style “nouveau shamanic.” Unbearable Weight seeks to gleefully unleash as much of that side of Cage as possible.

But Cage, despite the fast-paced plot’s hijinks, doesn’t embody his eccentricities as fully as his fans might expect. Instead, he plays Nick as a man who simply wants to do a good job and do right by his family—and who happens to be a movie star. That may sound like a boring choice for the notoriously intense actor. As it turns out, though, his performance unearths a surprisingly nuanced observation about Cage and his career: that as odd as he may seem, his relationship with his audience is stranger than any meme-worthy facial contortion, jaw-dropping interview, or flamboyant role.

Directed and co-written by Tom Gormican, Unbearable Weight could have been a broad parody or a vanity project. But that central joke—that Cage is odd—is nearing its expiration date; Cage has never shied away from engaging with his own idiosyncrasies, whether by poking fun at himself on Saturday Night Live or by addressing the ridicule in the press. With a career full of identity-unspooling roles such as the twin screenwriters he played in Adaptation, he’s too capable an actor to blanch at the chance to dig deeper into his own oeuvre.

Making Nick as grounded as possible creates a fascinating tension on-screen between the expectations for Cage’s performance and what he ends up delivering. Yes, the script is nowhere near as profound as Being John Malkovich’s, as far as movies with meta narratives go, but each time a scene seems to be leading to a joke about Cage’s unusual proclivities, the actor immerses it in an unexpected sweetness. When Nicky aggressively proclaims that he’s a movie star, Cage responds like a bemused older sibling, tired but grateful for the confidence of his younger self. When Nick spontaneously performs a song for his daughter in the middle of her 16th-birthday party, Cage steeps the sequence in desperation and angst, injecting sincerity into an absurd moment. This is Nicolas Cage doing what Nicolas Cage does best: making the material he’s given interesting, even if it’s at his own expense.

Pedro Pascal and Nic Cage by the water
(Katalin Vermes / Lionsgate)

In scenes opposite Pascal, Cage is even better. Pascal matches Cage’s devotion to creating a plausible human being amid the plot’s nonstop silliness, and their scenes crackle with a playful energy. Nick, when he arrives in Mallorca, has decided to quit acting, but Javi inspires him to keep trying. The two begin writing a script together and, in the process, often act out over-the-top scenarios without warning, creating moments in which Nick’s commitment to his craft gets presented as an indispensable asset rather than a punch line—even if Javi’s the only one who appreciates his effort.

The pair’s performances help shift the film from being about Nick’s nuttiness to being about how a celebrity and a fan can depend on each other for validation, satisfaction, and motivation. What is a movie star, after all, if he has no one to appreciate his quirks? And who is Nicolas Cage, specifically, if he’s not being seen as “Nicolas Cage, the eccentric Hollywood celebrity”? Cage plays Nick as a man who both craves and detests that dynamic, caught off guard by Javi’s open-hearted embrace of him. Even in scenes riffing on the ’90s action movies that made Cage a household name—all shoot-outs, car chases, and gunslinging standoffs—Cage and Pascal are magnetic to watch for their earnestness.

Yet Unbearable Weight makes clear that that connection is also innately tenuous, a one-sided adoration that can veer awfully close to obsession. To Javi, Nick can do no wrong. (“He was just right,” he sighs after their first meeting.) But Nick understands that Javi has an image of him in his mind that’s too perfect, too easily tarnished by the real man. As the story’s stakes rise with the revelation that Javi is a crime lord whom Nick must help the CIA take down, Unbearable Weight interrogates the fragility of that relationship: Cage exudes a quiet devastation over the prospect of disappointing a fan, because that would mean losing a kind of rare support.

Cage fans are a singular breed; sticking with him over his decades-long career has meant constantly defending his choices, being mocked for doing so, and cheering on an idol who often challenged the goodwill that comes with being a movie star. At times, Cage and Pascal play their characters’ bond like a romance, capturing fandom as a love story that’s thrilling and twisted at once. When Javi shows Nick his wildly thorough collection of Nick-related paraphernalia—including a life-size statue of his Face/Off character, complete with his golden guns—Nick takes in the sight with a look of awe and fear. When the two finally confront each other over their secret missions, Nick sounds anguished, as if unable to fully express his pain.

Of course, the film still gets to tell plenty of jokes about Cage, jokes that he takes in stride. There are one-liners nestled within meta observations about Cage’s career and the current state of Hollywood filmmaking. There are sight gags and spoofs of his work. But Cage’s unexpected approach to playing himself holds the project together, especially when the overwrought plot and forgettable minor characters threaten to upend it. He makes sense of Nick, enough to help the story’s wildest ideas land, because he focuses not on his character’s eccentricity, but on his fierce need for acceptance. Nicolas Cage, even after all the memes and all the ridicule, still knows exactly what to do with the weight of his unique intensity, including when to dial it back.