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'The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent' at SXSW review: Nicolas goes into his Cage

Eric Webb
Austin 360

Nicolas Cage is half rocket fuel, half beard, half cosmic being and half dedication to remaking the accepted cadence of American English.

The math works out. Sorry if it's too advanced for you.

That wasn't meant to be smug — the precise calculus behind Cage's persona and enduring cinematic charm eludes me, too, and I won't try to wrestle with God during South by Southwest. The solution to his formula has rarely been handled as kick-assedly as it is in "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent," which made its world premiere at SXSW Film Festival on March 12 at the Paramount Theatre. 

The equation of director Tom Gormican's film is easy enough: Nic Cage plays himself. And also a CGI-ed version of his younger self. And he's a down-on-his-luck narcissist who gets embroiled in a CIA sting that leads to kidnapping, subterfuge and prosthetic makeup, all of which somehow loops back to the fact that everyone in the world is a big fan of the man from "Con Air."

When I said "easy," I should have mentioned that my lowest SAT score was on the math portion.

Nicolas Cage is Nicolas Cage in "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent."

Cage is no stranger to this kind of meta trickery; see also "Adaptation" and, on some level, his filmography for at least the past decade. (Hello, "Color Out of Space.") But "Unbearable Weight" is something newer and weirder altogether, living in the same cinematic apartment complex as the trippy "Being John Malkovich" but far more concerned with a genuine love for its star, and honestly, movies themselves.

Gormican assembles an alternate universe where Cage made all the films he's made IRL while having an entirely fictional personal life, including a wife played by Sharon Horgan and an agent played by Neil Patrick Harris.

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And of course, there's the plot engine: Pedro Pascal as an obscenely wealthy Spanish criminal kingpin who just so happens to be obsessed — mostly in an adorable way, with a tasty tincture of Kathy Bates in "Misery" to keep you guessing — with the man, the myth, the Cage.

The in-movie Cage, brought low by personal and career failure, travels to Mallorca for a paid hangout before retiring from acting. That's the plan until U.S. agents played by Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz rope the star of "Moonstruck" into a tactical strike.

If there's one way to appeal to 2,000 cinema buffs at a film festival, it's to celebrate the idiosyncrasy of a cherished onscreen icon. "Unbearable Weight" is a precision laser straight to a wealth of Cage-isms. There are non-sequitur howls that punctuate sentences. There are manic fits of intense commitment to seemingly inconsequential moments. There is, gloriously, deliriously, footage of Cage making out with his younger self.

Like a kaleidoscope where every gyrating, psychedelic fractal is just another image of Cage's wild-eyed face, the movies within "Unbearable Weight" are legion. In one moment, it indulges in a literal tour of Cage's resume, as Pascal gives the actor a tour of his secret shrine. (Easter eggs to spot: a "National Treasure" poster and the chainsaw from "Mandy," which Pascal's character rightly calls a masterpiece.)

In the beginning at least, "Unbearable Weight" is equal doses of weird and witty, skewering Hollywood through absurdist situations — like Cage assaulting an exec via aggressive, Boston-accented monologuing in the Chateau Marmont parking lot. That's the film at its best.

Pedro Pascal plays a Nicolas Cage superfan in "The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent."

By the back half, with Cage and Pascal housing the spiritual essence of "Step Brothers" within their mortal forms, "Unbearable Weight" slides into a more conventional parody. That said, it also involves the pair dropping acid and running through the streets of Spain, so, no one's mad.

If you want to go full galaxy brain, you could see the tone shift as further meta mischief from Gormican and co-writer Kevin Etten. Without revealing too much, there's a movie-within-a-movie thing going on, and Cage's pursuit of a serious, character-driven drama manifests itself in the very movie you're watching. Just, you know, as a fever dream.

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On the red carpet ahead of the premiere, Cage said that he wouldn't have done the movie if it was joke about him. It's not. But that's always been the glory and the riddle of Cage, hasn't it? The serious man off camera, who has committed some of the most berserk performances in history to film.

There's never a wink. Even in a movie that feels like two Godzilla-sized eyelids staring right at the audience before closing together, Nicolas Cage's calculations are his own.

Grade: A-