Shot through with more nods and winks than most movies can sustain, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent threatens to push the concept of metanarrative to the breaking point. In it, Nicolas Cage plays a fictionalized version of himself—dubbed Nick Cage—who is roped into writing a movie in which he will star. Yet just when it seems no piece of art has ever gazed so long or lovingly at its own navel, it’s revealed to be a paean to cinema itself—and not really about Nic Cage at all. 

Let’s back up. In Massive Talent, Nick Cage is dissatisfied, on the brink of financial ruin, and has just lost out on the role of a lifetime. His career obsession has alienated his ex-wife and daughter, and he is being tormented by visions of his younger self, Nicky. In an act of desperation, he accepts $1 million to go to the birthday party of a rich superfan named Javi, played by Pedro Pascal. This all stands in contrast to the real-life Cage, who is married with two sons, and is, presumably, not haunted by visions of his young self. (Though the actor did say he based Nicky on a 1990 interview he did, where he was “obnoxious, arrogant, and irreverent.” To make things extra confusing, the credits list Nicky as being played by Nicolas Kim Coppola, Cage’s given name.) 

Considering the unbearable weight of the film’s own premise, it’s easy to imagine how Massive Talent could have fallen apart. It doesn’t. Instead, just as it starts to teeter on the brink of being a one-note movie whose only concern is using Nick Cage to poke fun at Nic Cage, it twists. As Javi is showing Nick Cage his Nic Cage shrine—complete with National Treasure posters, Face/Off wax statue, and Nic Cage sequin pillow—writer-director Tom Gormican’s film reveals itself to be a celebration of the kind of movies Cage makes, not the actor himself. 

The movie’s true heart reveals itself in its references. Mentions of meme-ish content like Nic Cage in a banana peel or Cage’s Saturday Night Live appearance are nowhere to be found. Instead, Massive Talent calls out the chainsaw from Mandy, Cage’s stunningly gorgeous experimental movie from 2018, and Cage’s iconic “Not the bees!line from The Wicker Man. And while many sequences are lifted straight out of the actor’s filmography, with moments or scenes faithfully recreated, there are comparatively few specific references to Cage, the man. The movies take center stage. 

Javi, and by extension the film itself, isn’t intent on idolizing Cage for his quirky, quotable moments. What’s fascinating is how the actor has managed to make those moments into something the audience feels in the first place. Both Javi and the film are preoccupied with how unbridled passion, unconcerned with looking “silly” or “unrealistic,” can capture authentic feelings and experiences. After all, not all emotions or experiences fit neatly into a sanitized Hollywood package.

This is what Nic Cage has pursued for most of his career. It’s also the purpose of cinema itself. We don’t watch movies about people trading faces or stealing the Declaration of Independence because we seek to see realistic, plausible things happen on screen. We watch them to see colorful, vibrant stories with memorable characters and scenes that capture the fullest possible range of emotions.