Nicolas Cage Might Be A Brilliant Actor, But He’s Still A Lunatic
Is Nicolas Cage, Oscar-winner, reformed castle collector, ambitious Elvis fan, also a brilliant actor? I think you can make a pretty strong case for that. As recently as the film Joe, based on the novel by Larry Brown, Cage is proving that he is not a lost cause.
More to the point, Joe is a solid argument against the joke/argument that Cage is incapable of subtlety. It is true that most of his films, and most of his best performances, consist of characters who are actively, noisily out of their fucking minds. But in spite of that penchant, Cage is capable of being understated, even reserved. It doesn’t come up, but Joe proves it can happen to begin with.
Still, most of his performances deal in manic, steady displays of energy. His characters occasionally explode into something even more extreme than that. The upcoming Army of One from director Larry Charles (Borat, Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm) puts him squarely in the deeply eccentric outsider/loner arena that he knows so well. And god help me, but it does look fun. The trailer will make it pretty clear to you that it can go either way, quality-wise. But it might just wind up being Cage’s best performance since Joe.
Three years from then to now isn’t that long of a time period. Cage has still made the most of that time. Between 2013 and the present, he has appeared in no less than ten movies. In most of them, he’s been the lead. Most of those films are so terrible, it’s hard to even rate them as guilty pleasures. Left Behind is such unfathomable bullshit, you will almost believe it is satire. Nicolas Cage has claimed to be in on the joke that he is hopelessly weird, only works for the money, and only plays raving psychopaths. Left Behind almost certainly guarantees that he’s full of shit. If only partially. I believe him, when he tells us that he’s aware of what we’re saying about him on the internet. I also think he gets the joke. I even think he’s okay with the joke.
But watch him in Left Behind. I dare you to try and make it through that movie. Don’t expect Cage to save things, as his performance is just barely superior to Kirk Cameron’s in the 2000 original. He seems to exist between the worlds of the most profound sugar high ever, and an exhausted, wide-eyed waking coma. Watching him is one of the more painful aspects of the movie, which is saying something. The movie going on around him is frighteningly different from the movie Cage seems to think he’s doing. There are a lot of those performances in the last fifteen or so years of his career. Being so prolific hasn’t helped his reputation either. Although I think you can make the case that he has always worked steadily.
Really, if I was broke after buying a bunch of weird shit, I’d probably work a little more, too. I believe Nicolas Cage’s claim that he isn’t motivated solely by money. I also believe him, when he claims that he doesn’t just sign on for the bug-eyed, scenery-chewing opportunities. When you’re really good, or at least distinctive, at playing a certain kind of character, those are the roles you get. Even when he was riding high on his Oscar win for Leaving Las Vegas (which he most certainly deserved), Cage had built a reputation for oddballs and intensive types. It’s just that this perception became even more pronounced, as time went on, and Cage embraced the deranged marriage of hammy and unpredictable.
Then we started learning more and more about his private life. Even people who generally don’t care about celebrities are oddly fascinated by the futile task of trying to understand what goes on in that guy’s head. He has refuted all of the claims and urban legends that have built up around him through the years. Some of it I’m willing to believe. I don’t think he’s just motivated by money. I think he’s justified in defending video-on-demand, which has become the preferred format for his movies. Legitimate gems are all over that landscape, if you’re willing to track them down.
But he’s not a little too obsessed with comic books? Sorry. He didn’t marry Lisa Marie Presley because he’s an Elvis fanatic? Come on, man. At least admit it. But he can’t. He never would. He can insist that they really did just connect as people, and he believes it. He can claim that everyone knew The Wicker Man was a comedy all along. I think he believes that, too. While the disconnect from reality isn’t what people think it is, there is absolutely zero fucking question that it is there. You don’t name your son Kal-El, and then act like you’re seeing the same colors as the rest of us. You just don’t. One of the great things about Nicolas Cage is that he does understand the joke. He is aware of his weirdness, but only up to a point. Then there’s the gulf between what he understands, and what we actually think. That gulf is deep, and incredibly wide.
Things get interesting from that point. Nicolas Cage is out of his mind. He has created a situation in which his distinctive charisma makes it impossible to look away from whatever ungodly, occasionally brilliant insanity he’s working on at the moment. He will never be able to shake off that public persona. The fact that he even tries suggests further evidence of that disconnect from reality. Most of would know better.
But Cage doesn’t. The fact that he doesn’t is one of the most interesting things of all about him. It might just be the main reason why he can still surprise us with good performances in good films. If someone really was all the way in on the joke, they wouldn’t be this enthusiastic. They would be crushed under the weight of the depression of being held to such bizarre, incomprehensible standards. Even when he doesn’t seem to be particularly invested in his character, there is still a gleam. It is the energy of someone who believes with absolute sincerity that they are doing the best work possible.
Even when they are screaming at imaginary bees.