The new fantasy interpretation of Nicolas Cage is part of a strange tradition of actors playing fictional, exaggerated versions of themselves.
The new and hugely entertaining movie The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is the latest example of a surprisingly long-established film genre – if genre is the right word – where actors play a fictionalised version of themselves. I’m not talking about those cameos – or even quite extensive supporting roles – in movies where an actor or other celebrity is brought on to be themself, or even those films like The Last Action Hero where Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a character who is being played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and… damn, this is getting complicated already, isn’t it?
No, this is that odd little collection of movies where an actor will play a fictional version of themselves, bleeding the idea of their real persona and a scripted one together. We might think of John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich, where he plays a version of himself, but that isn’t quite right – in that film, we see a version of the actor who is being manipulated by outside forces and never really get a feel for the character that he is playing as a distinct character from the man himself. Perhaps we come closer with Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Lucio Fulci’s A Cat in the Brain, where the directors play versions of themselves, haunted by their own creations. In the Craven film, this extends to having the cast of A Nightmare on Elm Street playing themselves, with Robert Englund also playing Freddy Krueger. Neither still feel quite what I’m talking about.
No, the sort of films I’m talking about are the ones that feature exaggerated and often unflattering versions of the actor in question, which then play on their screen persona as an action hero or horror star, or else just riff on our suspicions of what movie stars are really like – egotistic, arrogant, insecure and shallow. They often portray themselves as performers past their best, desperately trying to revive fading careers or escape typecasting or simply tired of the whole damn thing. It might seem odd that actors would want to play themselves in a film that makes them look stupid and out of their depth as the fiction of their work becomes reality – but, of course, actors love it. After all, these films allow them to have their cake and eat it. The films show that the performer can laugh at themselves, of course – you can’t imagine some of your more pretentious and self-important actors taking on roles like this – but they also stroke the ego, because the films only work if the actor in question is famous enough to pull it off. No one is going to care about a movie featuring someone whose name means nothing to them playing themself. And most of these films will show the actor finally stepping up and becoming the action hero that they portray – fiction becomes reality and they are capable of holding their own against real-life gun-toting villains and supernatural monsters. It’s rare that a film like this will allow its star to ultimately fail and to be fair, that’s not really what the audience would want either. That’s less to do with celebrity worship and more to do with wanting a satisfying narrative – just as in their other movies, the actors are ultimately playing a character who needs to grow beyond the selfish, shallow, troubled character that we first meet and redeem themselves. It wouldn’t be a giant leap to say that these are vanity projects, in the sense that they stroke the egos of already vain people.
There are exceptions to this rule: Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm can’t win very often because it’s an ongoing TV series based around a comedy version of him that is socially inept – that’s the whole joke. Similarly, in Seed of Chucky, Jennifer Tilly has to remain a victim who is knowingly mocked throughout as a has-been sexpot who is willing to sleep with directors of awful movies just to get a part (out of all the actors who have played versions of themselves on film, Tilly might be the gamest). But generally, the films follow a certain pattern – a film star who is past their prime is roped into a real-life drama that rivals that of their movies, often mistaking events for a movie shoot until they are finally forced to step up and take on the bad guys. Along the way, we’ll get lots of references to their earlier films and they’ll be supported by an uber-fan – sometimes one with a flimsy grasp on the separation between fiction and reality – who will be the person who has brought the star into the scenario to begin with and who will be given a brutal lesson in the difference between an actor’s role and their real-life persona, before the actor finally steps up and inhabits the hero role that they have played for so long, once again mixing truth and fiction. Essentially, if Galaxy Quest had been a real TV show, it would be this sort of thing.
To lesser or greater degrees, that’s the plot of My Name is Bruce, where Bruce Campbell battles Guan Di, the Chinese God of the Dead, or JCVD, where Jean-Claude Van Damme is kidnapped by bank robbers and held hostage during a police siege. Campbell’s film is the more niche, as it requires viewers to know who Campbell is and have a knowledge of the sort of horror films that he made – while Campbell is hardly unknown, he’s not really a household name outside of cult movie circles. The film is also a bit too much like the sort of B-movies that it mocks, without actually being as much fun as most of them. Rule of thumb: be very careful that if you feature a ‘bad’ movie in your story, you really need to make sure that your film is several cuts above. If you are unfamiliar with Campbell, then the film is possibly just a cheesy monster movie about a bad actor who gets caught up in demonic shenanigans, and as such it’s fine – though if you were unfamiliar with Campbell, you’re probably not going to be watching a film like this to begin with. JCVD is more interesting, not only became Van Damme has more mainstream recognition than Campbell but because it is darker, delving into an existential crisis within its main character that feels as though it is crossing the line from fiction into reality.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent has a bigger star than either of those two films playing himself. Nicolas Cage remains a big name, maybe more because of an already exaggerated persona than because of his films. he’s had an interesting career, one that has often seemed remarkably undiscerning, and in recent years has carved out a niche in fascinating indie horror and thriller film. He’s also someone who is clearly self-aware and knows how to play the character of Nicolas Cage already. The film follows the usual template to a degree – the fictional Nick Cage is in a career slum, estranged from his wife and daughter and has just lost the role he was desperate for. In urgent need of money, he takes a gig attending a birthday party in Spain and finds himself bonding with his host, only to find that the man is a crime boss who has apparently kidnapped the daughter of a prominent politician. Recruited by the CIA to help rescue the girl, Cage finds himself torn between his new friendship and the need to become a real version of the action hero he often played.
Within this, though, the film goes its own way, becoming a fun little buddy movie that is often unexpectedly hilarious and sometimes even touching. It integrates its real-life actor into a fictional scenario more effectively than most – while Cage has stated that the character in the film bears little resemblance to him in real life, it somehow feels strangely authentic – this Nicolas Cage might be struggling but he seems a pretty decent sort, and Cage the actor knows just when to allow Cage the character to go ‘full Cage’ and when to dial it back. The Ghost of Cage Past – a younger, more successful version of himself who haunts and taunts him to remember who he is, “Nicolas Motherfuuuuuuuuking Cage” – seems to be the Nicolas Cage that audiences expect and his presence and final dismissal by his older self is perhaps telling. I’m sure Cage gets a little tired of people expecting him to be consistently deranged and audiences clinging to any little moment of wildness in a film (like the entirely ordinary alpaca scenes in The Color Out of Space that would have gone unnoticed and unremarked had it involved any other actor) while ignoring the rest of his performance. Cage may have dug this hole for himself over the years – but I’m sure that the Nicolas Cage that audiences (and many filmmakers) demand must feel every bit as fictional for him as his character here. The film ends in an especially meta moment, as the actors playing his wife and daughter change and we find ourselves in the film based on the fictional Cage’s ‘real life’ experiences in Spain, blurring our perceptions of reality that little bit more.
Interestingly, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent has followed in the footsteps of its predecessors by being a financial disappointment at the box office. Perhaps cinema audiences don’t want to see their idols humanised, even if the portrayals are fictionalised ones. It’s ironic that a running theme in the film is the effort to make an adult drama and the need for commercial considerations in a world of Marvel and Star Wars domination. Perhaps art really has imitated real life in this instance. Nevertheless, this is another in an increasing run of fascinating, daring and original films that Cage is making. I don’t know how his finances or personal relationships are, but in terms of his career, the real Nicolas Cage has nothing to be ashamed of at the moment.
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Would you consider William Shatner in Free Enterprise part of this subgenre? Or even David Hasselhoff in the amusing meta-sitcom Don’t Hassle the Hoff?
The Hoff perhaps; Shatner is more fringe. Both are arguably already self-satirising in most of their work these days (whether they realise it or not!).
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