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Making (some) sense of Nicolas Cage’s strangest decade (so far)

David Gordon Green’s new movie Joe, in theaters this weekend, is a bleakly funny rural noir about an ex-convict trying very hard to keep his rage in check. Because Joe is played by Nicolas Cage, you can imagine how well that goes. We believe in Joe’s struggle to maintain control because we’re also watching Cage keeping his Cageness holstered; we also know the explosion is inevitable, that life can pour only so much vinegar into Joe’s baking soda before science takes its course. But Green lets the story wander, pause, digress. A girl moves into Joe’s house, then moves out. A lost dog gives Joe and his teenage buddy — played by Mud’s Tye Sheridan, just about the only other recognizable actor in the cast — an excuse to get drunk during the day and practice their cool-guy faces. After I saw the movie at a film festival in March, I wrote that this sequence is the best intentionally comedic acting Cage has done since Adaptation back in 2002.

Did I mean that as an outright dismissal of everything he’s done since then, comedically and otherwise? Not exactly, not quite — but I wrote it knowing it could be read that way. Many years ago, Jonathan Lethem suggested that rock critics love to hail each new Bob Dylan album as “Dylan’s best work since Blood on the Tracks” because it frees them from the hard work of grappling with Dylan’s confusing output between 1975 and the present. There’s a point at which an artist’s productivity becomes inconvenient; the idea of a “return to form” gives messy oeuvres the illusion of shape and cuts them down to manageable size. I felt guilty about doing this to Cage, though. By writing off the last 10-plus years of his filmography, I was dismissing movies I mostly hadn’t seen, made by a gifted and enthrallingly odd actor who’s never required stellar material to do interesting work. Plus, I totally forgot that Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans came out in 2009, years after Adaptation, and — among its many other virtues — is really fucking funny.

I started to think about Cage’s narrative, and whether it had become a truism. The narrative goes like this: As Nicolas Coppola, nephew of Francis, he breaks in with a bit part as one of Judge Reinhold’s fry-cook buds in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. As Nicolas Cage, he breaks out as a sweetheart punk rocker in Valley Girl. He builds a reputation with unaccountably eccentric and tempestuous comedic performances in Peggy Sue Got Married, Raising Arizona, and Moonstruck, then somehow cements it by actually eating an actual cockroach onscreen in Vampire’s Kiss.

In 1995, he plays a man whose resolution to kill himself with booze brings on a kind of beatific clarity in Leaving Las Vegas, and wins an Oscar. Then, between 1996 and 1997, he appears in The Rock, Con Air, and Face/Off, three massively successful summer blockbusters, each better than the one before it, and after that the through-line kind of disappears. He works with Scorsese, he works with Brett Ratner, he makes the sleazy/brilliant Snake Eyes and the sleazy/laughable 8MM, he plays an angel, he plays the mandolin for Penélope Cruz.

He makes a lot of money and spends it like a tipsy sultan. Eventually, this becomes an issue. His profligacy is reportedly rap-video-ish. He buys houses all over the country, a fleet of cars and motorcycles, Gulfstream jets, yachts, a Bahamian island, rare Superman and Batman comics, exotic animals, and a possibly stolen Tyrannosaurus bataar skull that he obtains at auction after outbidding fellow fossil-collecting leading man Leonardo DiCaprio. He buys two castles, one in England and one in Germany. He buys a mansion in New Orleans that’s putatively haunted by the ghost of a deranged 19th-century French Creole socialite and the slaves she’s said to have tortured and murdered on the premises.

In 2009, the IRS hits him up for $6 million in back taxes, after which his filmography takes a turn for the paycheck-y. Over the last decade, Cage’s films have made hundreds of millions of dollars — 2007’s National Treasure: Book of Secrets is his highest-grossing film ever, edging out 1996’s The Rock — and he’s been paid handsomely to star in them. His involvement with the National Treasure franchise alone should logically have freed him up to spend his off years making weird art films, or doing nothing, but he needs the money, so he works, three or four times a year, and seems to be what I will clear my throat and call somewhat indiscriminate about what kinds of jobs he takes.

Gradually the outlandish bug-eating-weirdo image he cheerfully cultivated in the ’80s and ’90s and the outlandish purchases and the outlandishly stylized performances and the increasingly lopsided bad-to-good-movie ratio all fuse together into one giant joke about the whole idea of Nicolas Cage, until Cage himself becomes the joke. Online, he becomes not just a meme but a whole branching forest of memes; he becomes the subject of that unique-to-the-Internet kind of love that’s essentially indistinguishable from hatred. People Photoshop him onto everything. Picolas Cage becomes a thing that exists.

All of it is understandable and none of it is fair. Since the turn of the century, Cage has made more good movies (and more interesting bad ones) than Johnny Depp, but somehow Depp remains One of Our Finest Actors and Cage is Grumpy Cat. He’s always been a fascinating actor whose greatest performances were riven with fascinating faults; now he’s been reduced to just those faults by a degraded cultural marketplace that can increasingly do nothing but point and say, LOL, fail. Cage deserves better. As Ethan Hawke, who costarred with Cage in 2005’s Lord of War, put it in a Reddit AMA a few years back: “He’s the only actor since Marlon Brando that’s actually done anything new with the art of acting; he’s successfully taken us away from an obsession with naturalism into a kind of presentation style of acting that I imagine was popular with the old troubadours. 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.”

But wait, Ethan Hawke: What if we’re ignoring Cage’s work in the bottom-half bad movies just because they’re bad? What if Cage is a kind of actor whose output can’t be properly valued without some serious recalibration of our entire value system? I decided it was time to reopen the case. I wasn’t about to watch or rewatch Cage’s whole filmography — it’s been done, and it didn’t go well for Abed when he tried it on Community this season. Besides, you don’t need me to tell you that Raising Arizona and Face/Off are masterpieces, and that 1993’s Deadfall, in which Cage seems to be basically playing Tony Clifton, may in its own way be one, too. No — just to put my own assumptions to the test, I’d focus on his most universally maligned decade of work, the from-hunger-prolific 10-year period between 2004 and today.

I would dispense with the notion of ranking these movies from best to worst. “Best to worst” is a useless concept here. Ranking Cage’s post-2004 filmography based on how much his hair does or doesn’t resemble Ralph Cifaretto’s would tell us as much and as little. And I dispensed with chronology in favor of chance, hoping hidden themes would reveal themselves.1 I kept a diary. As I read over it, I see that I am not the same man I was a week ago.

 

March 30

Forgot that Ghost Rider begins with narration by Sam Elliott, as if Johnny Blaze were the Dude of the netherworld. Decent gonzo-Cage performance, upstaged by (of all people) Peter Fonda, who really serves up the hellfire fondue as Mephistopheles.

Unofficial rule for this week: no clicking around on the Internet while Cage movies are in progress, unless it’s to seek out and read supplemental Cage material. During Ghost Rider, I read about the nine-foot pyramid-shaped tomb Cage bought himself a few years ago, to the unending delight of those who delight in snickering. For what it’s worth, the pyramid is a not-atypical example of a memorial from the mid-1800s Egyptian Revival period, an era of American architecture that also produced buildings like the Washington Monument.

As the website The Curator of Shit notes in a post headlined “Omnia Ab Uno: Nicolas Cage’s Tomb Is Not As Dumb As You Are!” Cage’s pyramid is “quite appropriate within a cemetery that is largely from before the Civil War in New Orleans.” The same post also suggests that “it wouldn’t hurt any of our social commentators to learn at least a little bit about our national history, if in fact they wish to accurately report on culture in a national context.” Hilarious!

Over and above that, though: Why should Cage’s deathstyle not be in keeping with his lifestyle? The more I read about Nicolas Cage, the more I empathize with his status as an eccentric genius persecuted by a brain-dead culture and/or this country’s unfair tax system. That I just did my taxes and learned that, as an all-1099 employee, I owe Uncle Sam the cost of a small pyramid has nothing to do with this.

April 1

Watched Cage in Bangkok Dangerous, directed by the Chinese brother team Danny and Oxide Pang, remaking their own 2000 Thai-language film.

Cage plays an assassin gearing up for one last job. His hair is preposterous. Shoe-polish black, like Skrillex’s. There’s a sense throughout the film of more being done with less, as in the scene where Cage answers the door in a black tank top, shoulders and chest fur misted with sweat, a costuming decision that indicates his character has just finished working out without requiring Cage to actually exert himself onscreen.

Some good wordless face-acting on Cage’s part in his falling-in-love scenes with a mute Thai woman (Charlie Yeung, from many Kar Wai Wong and Hark Tsui movies) but the rest is as pointless/hard to follow as the movie’s reputation and 9 percent Rotten Tomatoes score would suggest. Plot: Cage, on aforementioned last job, agrees to teach a young Bangkok dude how to assassinate people the Nicolas Cage way. Training montage: Young Bangkok Dude shoots at lined-up melons ineffectually while Nicolas Cage, watching from his left, strikes comically exaggerated it-pains-me-to-watch-this poses.

Lots of dad/mentor figures for Cage in this period: He has an apprentice in this, and presumably in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which I never got around to. As the Adam West–inspired Big Daddy in Kick-Ass, he has a daughter who’s also an apprentice. He has a kid in Stolen. He has a kid in The Weather Man. Even Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans gives him a teenage witness and a dog to take care of, for a while. Compare and contrast with Tom Cruise, who’s only one year older than Cage and like Cage is a father in real life, but seems determined to play one onscreen as infrequently as possible, as if safeguarding some aura of action-hero youthiness even as he settles into his fifties.

I read an October 2013 Hollywood Reporter story about Cage, in a press conference with Chinese state television, bemoaning Hollywood’s refusal to cast Asian male actors in things. Cage says he’d like to someday work with Tony Leung, star of seven Kar Wai Wong movies. Cage says, “One of my goals is to have a base near mainland China.” Noted: Cage’s oddly Cobra Commander–ish use of “base,” rather than a word like “home,” and his oddly specific use of “near,” as if a base on mainland China would be unsuitable for his purposes. Do they not have hollow-outable volcanoes there?

I read a Time magazine article about a Nicolas Cage–themed art show taking place April 12 in San Francisco. Person responsible: 35-year-old Ezra Croft, “who works at Bed Bath & Beyond and moonlights as a DJ and event planner.” Time notes that Croft came up with the idea after attending “an art show that seemed boring and stuffy. Art, he felt, should be more fun and more interactive than what he was used to seeing.” Art shows: boring and stuffy! Hypothetical scene: sound of needle skipping across record as Ezra, a.k.a. DJ Bed Bath & Beyond — in two-different-colored Converse and possibly blazer with sleeves pushed up — leaps onto art-museum pedestal, dislodging boring old statue. Elderly arts patrons look on scandalized as Croft’s minions begin tearing down Monets and Rembrandts and replacing them with funny coffee-shop art of Nicolas Cage.

Croft assures Time he means Cage no offense. “It’s kind of like when you’re in grade school and you draw a picture of your teacher with a horse body or something funny like that,” Croft says. Actually having a point of view w/r/t your subject: not fun/interactive, apparently! Croft’s upcoming projects include a show inspired by Bill Murray — “whose face Croft just so happens to have tattooed on his arm” — and possibly an exhibition of mustache-themed art. Fingers crossed. Croft is clearly a Buzzfeed bacon/kitten slide-show-building algorithm that has achieved sentience. This is how the Age of Ultron starts.

And I read some Netflix comments about Trespass, the 2011 thriller with Cage and Nicole Kidman as a married couple menaced by burglars, Cage’s first Joel Schumacher collab since 1999’s 8MM. From a five-star member review: “This movie is about a bunch of disorganized burglars: That is true. What is also true is that many burglars are indeed disorganized, especially when they are portrayed as drug addicts and pole dancers, which is the case in Trespass.” (Who are you to impugn the organizational skills of pole dancers, anonymous Netflix member? Tidy your own queue!) I make a note to not watch Trespass.

April 2

Bad movies/scripts leave Cage exposed. His waving looks more like drowning.

Thought of this while watching Stolen. Cage plays a master thief who’s also a doting father and a superstitious Credence fan. He listens to their music before every job, annoying his partner, played by Josh Lucas. This is not all they disagree about. During a bank-vault heist, Cage wants to just take the cash and run, but Lucas has his eye on a giant pile of gold bars, valuable but tough to move. “In this bag is enough for us to disappear!” Cage insists. “No need for any more jobs.” But Josh Lucas won’t listen.

Oh, and: director is Simon West, of Con Air fame. First thing Cage does upon release from prison, practically, is buy a big blue teddy bear for his once-little daughter, just like Cameron Poe with the bunny. Except his daughter is now angst-ridden/in college and therefore too old to be bought off with stuffed animals. Very effective pan from the teddy bear’s goofy-cute face to Cage’s own, sporting that please-love-me-although-I-am-a-monster look Cage is so good at.

Thought: Cage loves to play a bad man with a good side (usually a good side that feels added during the revision phase of the screenwriting process, possibly in response to script notes from Nicolas Cage). Is there a part of him that feels similarly divided/doubled and wishes to express that? First thing you read in every bio of him ever written is the part about how Nicolas Coppola changed his last name — supposedly to avoid the appearance of having exploited his connection to uncle Francis Ford Coppola, although not accepting roles in Rumble Fish or The Cotton Club or Peggy Sue Got Married might have scotched that notion more effectively. Was the name change really about something else, some deeper self-effacement?

Stolen is trash, but some intriguing dual-identity/masking themes run through it. Cage steals a Mardi Gras mask at one point to elude pursuing feds. An FBI agent (Danny Huston) puts on a Popeye Doyle hat for the big bust. The movie itself was originally called Medallion, but was released as Stolen to capitalize in some tenuous way on the success of Taken; it’s a film with a stage name. Most important, when Josh Lucas’s character resurfaces, he’s lost a leg below the knee and changed his whole look to fool the law. New look: blond stringy wig, tattoos, yellow aviators. He looks like an evil Mitch Hedberg. You know who he really looks like, though? Nicolas Cage! Accordingly, it’s Lucas and not Cage who gives the great Cage performance in this movie — weird mannerisms, questionable hair, gets to stick his face in the camera and say things like, “I used to be a golden boy, dollface! Now, I’m a freakin’ Picasso!” In that sense Stolen is a Cage-vs.-Cage film, part of a subgenre that also includes Adaptation and Face/Off (Travolta-playing-Cage vs. Cage-playing-Travolta vs. your ability to suspend disbelief vs. the Caesar haircut vs. flocks of slow-motion doves).

Great expository turn by M.C. Gainey, as another of Cage’s old associates: “After he lost the leg, something changed in him … He said he just felt numb to everything. Numb, like a statue … He blames it all on you, Will. He blames the leg on you, so he blames the numb on you.” Got it.

Netflix suggests jumping right into Seeking Justice (2011, Roger Donaldson), so I do. Cage plays a New Orleans high school teacher. Sparse goatee, fake hairline sculpted into approximation of receding hairline. As regular a guy as he’s played since Mr. Asswipe Johnson.

Cage is married to January Jones. They have those fancy leaning bookshelves and engage in effete leisure-time activities — Jones plays the cello, Cage plays chess with his cool black friend Harold Perrineau. You can tell they’re soft-handed intellectuals doomed to get Straw Dogs’d by violent reality. Soon Jones is raped at gunpoint. A bald Guy Pearce shows up at the hospital and tells Cage he can arrange for her rapist to be killed if Cage agrees to do him a favor TBD. Other than Pearce turning out to represent a shadowy group that takes recent personal-tragedy sufferers and dangles the promise of revenge to trick them into working as hit men, what could go wrong?

Again, trash. You maybe do not look to the director of Cocktail for a psychologically nuanced depiction of the aftereffects of sexual assault on a marital partnership. Flip side of the Cage-exposed-in-bad-movies thing, though: His work is still fascinating to observe even when it looks like work. Some actors make their acting invisible; Cage makes you think about what acting is and how weird it must be to do it for a living.

There’s this scene where Cage stands at a vending machine, trying to decide whether or not to buy two candy bars and thereby signal to Guy Pearce that he’s taking Pearce up on his rapist-killing offer. This scene requires Cage to communicate, in wordless close-up, that he is (1) deciding whether or not to sanction the killing of his wife’s rapist, (2) feeling paranoid that the overweight cop who’s watching him buy the candy bars knows what he’s up to, and (3) thinking of his poor wife, how she smacked his hand away when he tried to touch her cheek as she lay on her hospital bed. Imagine trying to sell those three ideas just by doing things with your face muscles. It’s amazing that all actors aren’t more insane.

April 3

Watching The Wicker Man, thinking about how meme culture pathologizes the inherent strangeness/willingness to Go There that is Cage’s greatest strength, inadvertently reinforcing a set of conservative ideas about what is and isn’t good screen acting. Not defending The Wicker Man per se by saying this, but is there any actor whose body of work would not seem silly if reduced to a “craziest moments” supercut or looped to a techno beat? This, to me, is what’s heroic about Cage — his willingness to hand this much ammunition to people determined to misunderstand his intentions.

Regarding The Wicker Man per se: It’s totally unnecessary, like the Wallflowers’ cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes.” Cage is a cop from California who travels to an island off the coast of Washington to help his ex-fiancée look for her missing daughter. The island turns out to be the home of a matriarchal society that may have diabolical plans for the missing girl, and holy honeyballs does a lot of screen time elapse between the moment we the audience figure out what’s going on and the moment Nicolas Cage does. It kind of works if you pretend it’s a movie about the worst detective in the world — a man whose only investigative technique is being incredibly rude to people — and that Cage’s performance is a deliberately outlandish parody of male ego and obliviousness. And I have to agree with the Internet about the moment when Cage punches a woman in the face while dressed as a bear, which is hilarious.

Best moment of Neil LaBute’s career/best use of “whilst” in a YouTube video title:

April 4

Morning: In a New York Times profile, Nicolas Cage paraphrases Flaubert’s famous quote about being orderly in one’s life in order to be violent and original in one’s work, but attributes it to “A friend of mine … I think it was Rob Zombie.”

Evening: I drive to Santa Monica to see Cage in Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans at the Aero. After the screening, there’s a Q&A with Cage and Herzog, moderated by critic F.X. Feeney.

Cage wears jeans, a casual white jacket, some weird orange necklace. He shows off a charcoal portrait of himself that a fan gave him and signs a copy of the Declaration of Independence for another fan who’s brought one to the theater. Cage talks about meeting Herzog for the first time at a party in Mill Valley. Cage was 8; he noticed that Herzog had a tattoo of a top-hat-wearing skeleton on his arm and thought, This is a pretty cool guy! Cage reveals that one of the movie’s funniest beats — the little look Cage’s cokehead cop gives when his commanding officer assigns him to the property room — was his way of paying tribute to Daffy Duck, a key early influence.

Asked if he has any unrealized dream projects, Cage says, “I want to get out on the water in a movie. I need to be on the water so I can express my love of the ocean.” He says he wants to play Captain Nemo in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. He actually says the titles that way — “Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick,” the way you’d say Lee Daniels’ The Butler or Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

And then someone asks Cage how ironic his performances are meant to be, especially the recent ones — if we’re meant to laugh at or with them, essentially. Suddenly everyone’s on the edge of their seats, wondering how self-aware or un-self-aware the answer’s going to be. Or maybe that’s just me. Cage talks about making Bad Lieutenant. He says he’s never done drugs, that he doesn’t believe in them, but that he enjoyed playing a character who was always high, because it gave him an excuse to mess with expectations.

“I like characters that have some mechanism — some engine, if you will — and that allow me to explore my more abstract dreams with film performance in contemporary cinema.

“Even movies like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance — if you’re playing a guy that sold his soul to the Devil, and his head bursts into a flaming skull in black leather, and you want to become a moving tattoo in a modern movie, that’s a great way to do it. Yeah — I sold my soul to the Devil and my head’s on fire. I’ll scream all I want. [Applause break.] Don’t get stuck in a naturalistic style if you can try something new. As long as it has emotional content. If you’ve really got feeling behind it, from the heart, you can design a performance and go as big as you want.

“Which is why I have umbrage with the words ‘over the top,’” he says, a note of genuine Rage Cage indignation creeping into his voice. “Well, you tell me where the top is, and I’ll tell you if I’m over it.”

Fuckin’ iguana:

April 5

It’s 11:30 at night, I have had a few drinks, I am watching National Treasure. I write down, “Cage’s madness and Disney’s madness doing that Patty Duke thing where they pretend a doorway is a mirror,” then spend awhile trying to figure out what I mean by that. It’s amazing I’ve never been invited back to speak at the journalism school I dropped out of.

The main problem with the notion that Cage squandered his post-Oscar momentum on dumb action movies and thereby lost something irretrievable is that Cage’s sellout movies are more consistently entertaining than just about anybody else’s. His inherent absurdity infects and elevates them; Cage’s own expansive persona fills in the gaps in action-movie characters without qualities. Here, he’s perfectly cast as an Indiana Jones–like treasure hunter whose greatest gift is his ability to make totally deranged leaps of logic. When he pauses while stealing the Declaration of Independence to read aloud from it and sigh, “People don’t talk that way anymore,” it seems like something Nic Cage would totally do; I absolutely believe that Cage could convince himself that the only way to show proper respect for the Declaration is to steal it.

“Ben,” somebody says to Nic Cage in this one, “the treasure of the Knights Templar is the treasure of all treasures.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that, really,” Cage says, his voice dripping sarcasm. He sounds a little like Napoleon Dynamite. (Proposed: Just as every Nicolas Cage impression is to some extent a Richard Nixon impression, every Napoleon Dynamite impression is to some extent a Nicolas Cage impression. Therefore, by the transitive property, all of Kanye West’s Napoleon Dynamite ad-libs2 are also Kanye doing Nicolas Cage, and there will come a day for all of us when we look at this intermittently amusing and terrifying and depressing Tumblr and see our own bodies wearing Nicolas Cage’s face.)

April 6

Bailed out of the dismal Season of the Witch (“Extensive reshoots by Brett Ratner,” raves Wikipedia) after 32 minutes.

Surfing the CageNet. There are more Nicolas Cage pillowcases for sale on Amazon than you’d think. How many is “more”? If you start typing the words “Nicolas Cage” into the search field, “Nicolas Cage pillowcase” is one of the autofill phrases that comes up, that’s how many.

April 7

Lunch with a friend who’s in town from Chicago. I spend five to 10 minutes more than is socially acceptable talking about Nicolas Cage. Sorry, Jon.

Later: double feature of semi-serious Nic Cage movies from 2005, the last year on record when Actual Actor Cage didn’t have to compete in the marketplace with Paycheck Cage or his sheepish brother Wage-Slave Cage. Lord of War has Cage and Jared Leto as Ukrainian American arms dealers. At one point, Cage and Leto do cocaine while Eric Clapton sings “Cocaine” on the soundtrack. It’s that kind of movie.

There are moments, though. Cage rhapsodizing about the Kalashnikov. And the part where Cage smokes a cigarette and stares down rival dealer Ian Holm in a fancy restaurant. He’s wearing a black suit. The light is scotch-colored. A Nino Rota–ish mandolin ripples on the soundtrack, and for a second Nicolas Cage gets to be a Corleone.

Gore Verbinski knocked out The Weather Man as a kind of palate/soul-cleanser in between filming the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie and the second and third. I go in expecting a comedy with a sappy and life-affirming third act. I’m wrong — this is an almost determinedly downbeat film, like an Alexander Payne movie with less faith in people’s inherent goodness.

Also feels like the most explicit statement we’ve ever seen from Cage — by all accounts a genial signer of autographs and Declarations of Independence and whatnot — about fame and its discontents. As Dave Spritz, he’s enough of a public figure to be denied privacy but not enough of one to command respect. Not until late in the film does Dave give way to Rage Cage, and when it happens, it’s totally ineffectual — he’s in an empty parking lot in winter, punching the cold air because he can’t beat up his own clownish image.

Later, he sits in a mall food court and experiences a painful epiphany about his place in the universe — “I’m fast food” — and the line between Dave and Cage basically dissolves.

April 8

Watching World Trade Center, with Cage and Michael Peña as Port Authority policemen entombed alive on 9/11. The only acceptable place for a movie star in this story: pinned under concrete, stripped of nearly all his expressionistic tools except half his face, still somehow unfairly lucky. Wicker Man came out one month later.

Didn’t intend to spend today watching Nicolas Cage movies about 9/11, but that is what ends up happening. Evening selection: 2009’s Knowing, gloomy prog sci-fi thriller by The Crow /Dark City’s Alex Proyas. In a time capsule that’s been buried for 50 years, Cage discovers a piece of paper with a bunch of numbers on it. One of the numbers is 9/11. Frantic-Googling montage ensues. Cage figures out that the numbers are the dates, locations, and casualty counts of five decades of calamities, including the attacks of September 11th and the fire that killed Cage’s wife.

“Don’t you think you’re acting kind of awkward today?” asks Cage’s son, who clearly has not figured out that his dad is Nicolas Cage. Later, the world is destroyed by solar flares.

Cage’s character is an astrophysicist, a widower, a drinker, a believer in the idea that there’s nothing to believe in. “There is no grand meaning,” he tells a classroom full of college students. “There’s no purpose … Shit just happens.”

I’m being forced by this project to confront this same possibility. In 2007, Cage made Next, a bad movie about precognition, which grossed only $18 million. And yet, two years later, he makes this movie, also about precognition, and it’s a hit — decent reviews, wins its opening weekend, makes $80 million domestic. Everything about Cage’s career makes me think of what John Updike said, via Rabbit Angstrom, about Ronald Reagan: “The powerful thing about him as President was that you never knew how much he knew, nothing or everything, he was like God that way, you had to do a lot of it yourself.”

April 9

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance roars out of the gate strong, then seems to tire of itself before you do. It’s still the only recent Marvel adaptation with any real comic-book mania in it, thanks to Crank Adderall auteurs Neveldine & Taylor, who’d never get to make this movie for Marvel today. There are moments in which Cage seems to be gunning for some as-yet-nonexistent Academy Award presented to “Most Actor”; I’m particularly fond of a scene known to the Internet as SCRAPIN’ AT THE DOOOOOOAHHH.

“So many times,” Cage says in voice-over, “I’ve tried to keep the Rider from coming out, but tonight I need him.” He’s agreed to save a missing child; he’s clutching the kid’s photo, trying to summon the spirit. At the Aero, Cage talked about having to get angry for a bar-fight scene in Joe, how he worked himself up by thinking about a news story he’d read, this awful item about a kid falling into a pen at the zoo and getting torn apart by hyenas or something. Trying to bring the Rider out. Imagine how many times Cage has had to do stuff like that.

These movies are all about Cage enduring the emotional whiplash of screen acting. You force yourself to get so angry you become somebody else, so angry your brain catches fire. It takes a toll. You wear a lot of leather and wake up in strange places. Sometimes you don’t know who you are anymore. This movie is about what it’s like to be Nicolas Cage. All Nicolas Cage movies are about what it’s like to be Nicolas Cage. I think I understand everything now. Later, the Ghost Rider ghost-rides a crane. 

Illustration by Simon Greiner.

Filed Under: Movies, Nicolas Cage

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Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ PAPPADEMAS