[27 June 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Everyone loves to argue that, over the last decade of so, Nicolas Cage was a great actor making only wise decisions. They love to point to his filmography circa 2005 to present and conclude that, before this unfortunate binge as a play for hire paycheck casher, the award winning star was work smart and role savvy. They highlight his recent pathetic attempts at working within difficult genres—the comic book epic (Ghost Rider), the apocalyptic headscratcher (Knowing), the sci-fi actioner (Next)—and resolve that, prior to some bout of wild child tabloid talentlessness, a pre-middle aged Cage made all the right choices. In turn, they have gone from adoring to apoplectic, hating their one time hero in the process.
In response to such a conclusion, all one can say is…WHAT? If anything, Nicolas Cage has made it his goal, every arduous step of the way, to thwart convention and instill anger. Even during his meteoric rise in the late ‘80s, he would temper success with sidetracks into the weird and eccentric. In fact, scattered throughout his near 25 years in the biz, he’s made as many blunders as brilliant moves. In celebration of the DVD release of one of his worst bank statement supplements—last January’s confused crap Season of the Witch—we look back at the 10 most flagrant film f*ck-ups any actor can claim. If you want clear reasons to hate him, this collection offers conclusive proof. Clearly, Cage always had hack in him. It just took the last few years for it to fully flower.
By this point in his young career, Cage was already commanding lots of legitimate attention. But 1990 would be a transitional year, this excruciatingly bad erotic thriller vying for recognition with the commercial action effort Fire Birds and the David Lynch directed Palme d’Or winner Wild at Heart. Indeed, if there was ever a poor career choice that perfectly illustrates Cage’s typical lack of sound judgment, it would be this one. Even the controversy over the original NC-17 rating couldn’t help what was, essentially, a Cinemax softcore snorefest accented by a weird New Orleans vibe. When your sexual rival is Judge Reinhold, you know you’re in trouble.
When you think about comedy, race relations and bigotry are usually the first things you imagine, right? And when it comes to a couple of on screen funny men, the first names that pop up are Samuel L. Jackson and Nicolas Cage, right? Written and directed by E. Max Frye (who cut his screenplay teeth on Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild), this was supposed to be a subversive look at a very touchy social subject ala Blazing Saddles. Instead, it was a lukewarm lunkheaded experience with our future paycheck casher going through the unnecessary, uneasy motions. The title reference says is all.
Here’s a new low for the already sinking actor—playing third banana to a pair of SNL‘s least successful small to big screen comedians. There’s nothing technically wrong with the Dana Carvey/Jon Lovitz vehicle, that is, if you don’t take into consideration how awkward and unfunny it is. Unlike his work in Raising Arizona, which allowed for a more character based comic criminality, Cage was more the straight man here, stuck watching two less than successful ‘stars’ squirrel around like clueless chipmunks—and nothing is worse than an unfunny farce. From this point forward, he would more or less avoid the comedy genre.
In 1995, Cage’s career hit a massive mainstream milestone when he won the Oscar for Best Actor for his moving portrayal of a suicidal alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas. He follows that up with the Michael Bay winner The Rock (1995), the solid Simon West outing Con Air (1996), and the excellent John Woo actioner Face/Off (1997). So what does he do for an encore? He pisses all over Wim Wender’s magical Wings of Desire with this awful Hollywood remake. Dragging co-star Meg Ryan along for the affront, he aids and abets Brad Siberling (of Caspar and 2009’s Land of the Lost fame), destroying the original’s heart and humanity.
It has a solid premise (a private detective is hired by the widow of a wealthy businessman to find out if a snuff film she found among her late husband’s effects is real) and a cast including Joaquin Phoenix, James Gandolfini and Catherine Keener. The script was even written by Se7en scribe Andrew Kevin Walker. So what went wrong? Well, someone let director Joel Schumacher on the set. Famed for destroying the first franchise fling of a certain Caped Crusader (he was the one that gave Batman nipples), he turned this potential dark journey into porn’s even more perverted underbelly into a gloomy goof.
A wartime romance with Cage as a music loving Italian officer invading Penelope Cruz’s tiny Greek isle. Love, and lame local color ensue. It’s clear after watching this and City of Angels why Cage doesn’t do more love stories. He has zero chemistry with his co-star and can’t summon up much sexual allure. Add in John Madden’s (Shakespeare in Love) journeyman direction, the weird violent ending involving those always evil Nazis, and Cruz’s inherent lack of spark and you’ve got something that suggested an epic emotional journey but only ended up being a irritating, inert period piece.
Again, as he would off and on throughout his career, Cage found salvation in a quirky project just slightly askew from the typical Cineplex fare. Playing twin writers (based on Charlie Kaufman’s struggles to bring the bestseller The Orchid Thief to the big screen) and racking up major awards consideration, Adaptation. would signal the next phase in his so-called rebirth. Again he found both commercial (National Treasure) and critical (Matchstick Men) success. Then he smeared filmic feces on it all by starring in this ridiculous remake of the celebrated British horror cult classic. Few in the audience could look at bees, or the actor, the same way again.
He should have learned after Angels. Wicker was another warning. This much is crystal clear… Nicolas Cage and remakes do not go well together. This time around, a celebrated Thai film by the Pang Brothers was the source. Even more disconcerting, the duo behind the original actually stuck around to make the US update. For his part, Cage, looks bored, tired, uninterested, weak, and anything but a highly trained paid assassin who falls for a deaf mute while on assignment. He is supposed to be the sullen, sour, deadly center of a typical tale of murder and redemption. Instead, he simply kills the film.
After Jerry Bruckheimer managed to manipulate magic—and lots of money—out of Disney’s determined obsession to turn their amusement park rides and classic cartoons into live action adventure films, he was given the keys to Mickey’s kingdom. His first post-Pirates effort was this awful kid flick which managed to both destroy the producer’s powerful Summer movie reputation and fart all over Fantasia simultaneously. While co-star Jay Baruchel stumbles around bravely, looking for a purpose, Cage merely sleepwalks through his role as a wise wizard. Together, they turn an attempt at quality family entertainment into a less than spellbinding experience.
When you think of a Teutonic Knight returning from the Crusades during the middle of the Black Plague, you naturally imagine Nicolas Cage, don’t you? Even better, no one suggests period piece perfection more precisely than a man who reads his lines like he’s ordering a large pie from his favorite neighborhood pizzeria. When critics complain about Cage’s career choices, something like Witch really stands out. It’s the antithesis of everything his time in Tinseltown suggests. Instead of playing uptight urbanites or cleverly layered characters, Cage is merely wandering through the cinematic ages, aimless. Not even a confrontation with the Devil himself can deliver him.