The Intentional (and Unintentional) Comedy of Nicholas Cage

No one turns high drama into comedy like Cage.
The Intentional (and Unintentional) Comedy of Nicholas Cage

Nicolas Cage is back! But has he ever been truly gone?

Cage the Actor isn’t always starring in the year’s biggest movies, but Cage the Persona seems to always be lurking in our pop-culture consciousness. He’s the over-the-top, face-contorting weirdo who’ll rage into any situation to get the job done, as iconic as Tom Cruise’s toothy action hero or Tom Hanks’ genial everyman.  

The persona is driven by Cage’s unusual acting style, foregoing the naturalistic methods of most screen actors for something he has described at different times as “German expressionist”, “western kabuki,” and “nouveau shamanic.”  In layman’s terms, it essentially means:  Not subtle.  Imagine the silent film actor who only has his exaggerated facial expressions to communicate fear, anguish, or fury. 

That’s Cage the Persona, a concept that drives his upcoming movie, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

It’s Cage the Actor doing “the easiest gig ever,” getting a shot at the role he was born to play--Cage the Persona.  But don’t tell either Cage that he’s finally getting a shot at comedy.

“Somewhere along the way, Hollywood seems to have forgotten that I could do comedy,” Cage told The Hollywood Reporter. “I had done Raising Arizona, I had done Honeymoon in Vegas, Moonstruck — I mean, it goes on — but they forgot. With this, Tom (Gormican) invited me back into a comedy, and it was a very welcome experience for me because I wanted to do that. It’s been so long.”

As we count the days until we can see Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, let’s cycle back through Cage’s other comedies -- both intentional and unintentional -- for a reminder of all the ways he’s made us laugh.

Raising Arizona: Intentional

With his Wolverine sideburns and shiftless Southern accent, Cage knocks it out of the park in this early Coen Brothers kidnapping comedy.  His acting style, which could rightly be labeled cartoonish, works to create what critic Pauline Kael calls “a lowlife caricature of a romantic hero, trying to do the right thing by everybody. His slapstick droopiness holds it all together.”  

Peggy Sue Got Married: Intentional and Unintentional

Well, Peggy Sue Got Married is indeed a comedy.  And yet Cage, who is acting funny all right, seems like he’s in an entirely different movie from everyone else.

Cage admits that star Kathleen Turner hated his performance, one he describes as “Jerry Lewis on psychedelia.” Since the real Lewis already seems like he’s dropping acid, this should give you an idea of what a weird performance Cage gives here. Funny? For sure. But the vibe is bonkers and not necessarily in the way director Francis Ford Coppola intended.

Vampire’s Kiss: Unintentional

A literary agent thinks he’s turning into a vampire -- could be a creepy commentary on modern-day existential angst, but in Cage’s hands, it’s laugh-out-loud comedy. The Chicago Reader was probably understating it: “(Cage’s) over-the-top effusions of rampant, demented asociality are really something to see.”

It was just as nuts behind the scenes, with Cage requesting hot yogurt to be poured over his toes so he would appear properly aroused during his love scene with Jennifer Beals. 

Adaptation: Intentional

Cage was hilarious playing two versions of another out-there, real-life guy, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, working from a screenplay by Kaufman and his fictional twin, Donald.  Does this have Cage written all over it or what? 

Portraying both Kaufmans gives Cage a chance to play all the notes on his emotional piano, from neurotic to self-loathing to joyously stupid. He “bugs his woebegone eyes in startled panic reminiscent of Gene Wilder,” says Newsweek’s David Ansen -- and it’s a compliment.

Face/Off: Unintentional

Cage and John Travolta exchanging faces and personalities?  Um, YES, we’d watch that. Director Jon Woo makes the whole thing bubble with crazy action sequences, but pyrotechnics can only do so much to compete with Cage’s crazed facial contortions. 

There’s a short period of the film where Cage is in a coma, the only time, suggests CNN’s Paul Tatara, that he doesn’t overact. “Cage goes way over the top way too often. In Face/Off, he bares his teeth and sorta yodels every now and then.”

Ghost Rider: Unintentional

Today, Nic Cage in a Marvel movie sounds, frankly, amazing.  But 2007’s Ghost Rider was a failure everywhere but at the box office, where it surprisingly made enough money to warrant an even crappier sequel, 2012’s Ghost Rider: Spirit of the Vengeance.

Cage must have seemed a natural for the part -- the guy had an actual Ghost Rider tattoo that had to be covered up so he could play Ghost Rider, for Stan Lee’s sake. Wired actually applauded Cage’s histrionics in the otherwise derided original, a performance that “winningly exudes cheesiness mixed with full-bore fanboy zoom.”

But the sequel ups the ante for unintentional comedy.  “We have drawn attention to the fact that Nicolas Cage, never the subtlest of actors, seems to have abandoned any lingering inclination towards restraint," wrote the Irish Times. “Still, it’s worth pointing out that during the press screening for Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, critics were howling with laughter at the lunatic intonations Cage imposed on the most mundane snatches of dialogue.”

Mom and Dad: Intentional

Let’s wrap things up with this 2017 horror film, a wild-eyed smash-up of The Purge and Parenthood that certainly knows it’s a comedy on some level. Count on Cage to bring the nutso, says IndieWire, with a performance full of “volatile swings and batsh!t line readings all operating at 11.”

We’re here for it.  Keep your witty, urbane comedies and give us batsh!t line readings all day long. 

For more ComedyNerd, be sure to check out:

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Top image: Hemdale Film Corporation


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