It’s perhaps the easiest way to sniff out the most boring person at a party. This brave individual, often with little provocation, will spout off an opinion that hasn’t been edgy in about a decade: “Nicolas Cage sucks!”
Why I’m obligated to defend a 51 year-old actor, I may never know, but it’s my burden.
“Have you seen him in ‘Adaptation,’ or ‘Raising Arizona’?” I’ll ask.
“No,” they almost always say, but they did catch most of “National Treasure 2” once on TNT.
Cage’s process for selecting roles is certainly enigmatic, just last year starring in indie darling David Gordon Green’s acclaimed film “Joe” as well as a critically panned remake of Kirk Cameron’s Christian drama “Left Behind.”
I’m not pretending that Cage hasn’t put out a lot of mediocre movies–I spent a half hour of my limited time on this earth watching “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance”– but few actors commit so much to every role they play, and none are as entertaining to watch.
In his review of the phenomenal “Adaptation,” film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “There are often lists of the great living male movie stars: De Niro, Nicholson and Pacino, usually. How often do you see the name of Nicolas Cage? He should always be up there. He’s daring and fearless in his choice of roles, and unafraid to crawl out on a limb, saw it off and remain suspended in air.”
Cage fully inhabits each of his characters much like Daniel Day-Lewis, but unlike Day-Lewis, he has a couple of castles, a dozen homes, and yachts to pay for and simply can’t afford to take years off between roles.
Why is Cage singled out for his misses when actors like Johnny Depp are allowed dud after dud? Depp pushed sci-fi trash “Transcendence” — whose only consolation was a scene in which one of Depp’s henchmen threw a washing machine atop a roof with great menace — and whatever “Mortdecai” was on us in the span of eight months. A movie about Johnny Depp being uploaded into the Internet was near-unwatchable, but only my imagination limits me from thinking about how excellent the same movie with Cage plugged in would be.
Samuel L. Jackson is in many ways similar to Cage, having been a big star for a few decades and doing just about every movie that falls into his lap(some great, some good, some terrible; combined, Cage & Jackson have done more than 250, according to IMDB), being the victims of lazy, formulaic directing(it seems Cage is often told to do something crazy; Jackson is told to glare at the camera and shout that epithet he’s so famous for), and a knack for making otherwise bad movies watchable, but only Cage is held accountable for the flops.
But what use is a defense of an actor if you’re only talking about their lows? Cage’s “Lord of War” co-star Ethan Hawke wrote, “If I could erase his bottom half bad movies, and only keep his top half movies, he would blow everyone else out of the water.”
While I’m not so sure I’d put him above every other actor — Michael Shannon and especially Oscar Isaac come to mind — his list of great performances in great movies is not an insignificant one: “Valley Girl,” “Peggy Sue Got Married,” “Moonstruck,” “Wild at Heart,” “Red Rock West,” and “Leaving Las Vegas,” which won him an Oscar for Best Actor. There’s “Raising Arizona,” a slapstick comedy in which he plays serial stick-up artist and hopeless romantic H.I. McDonnough opposite an adorable Holly Hunter. There’s “Adaptation,” where he expertly plays struggling screenwriter and sufferer of severe social anxiety Charlie Kaufman as well as his identical twin Donald, who couldn’t be more different on the inside.
Last but not least, there’s the movie that perfectly captured the beast of Cage by letting him off the leash: Werner Herzog’s 2009 film “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” in which Cage makes every other Loose Cannon Cop look like a brown-nosing pencil pusher. Playing a drug-glutton cop in post-Katrina New Orleans, imagine DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort but with even less humanity, a badge and gun, and a domain almost as lawless as Wall Street.
Nicolas Cage is a man with a family to support. He, like many Americans, was hit hard by the ’08 recession. For many people, this meant finding a new job. For Cage, it meant playing a demon riding a motorcycle and an airline pilot left behind by the Rapture. As another greatly misunderstood artist sang, “You’re not perfect but you’re not your mistakes.”