Monday, April 6, 2009

Nicolas Cage: Bad Actor

This past Saturday night I did something I haven’t done in a long while – I went to the movies. That might sound strange coming from the likes of me, but considering the ticket prices and the rampant lack of courtesy on display at most multiplexes, I usually try to avoid the weekend crowds. So I went and saw “Knowing” at the local AMC – I figured everyone else was seeing “Fast & Furious” (considering that movie’s $70 million opening, boy, was I right.) There was still a decent crowd for the movie though and thankfully there weren’t too many incidents of morons answering their cell phones or texting during the flick.

I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by “Knowing.” I thought the trailers looked pretty ludicrous – and the movie is indeed ludicrous – but despite a very, very, rough set-up, the movie took me on a ride that I didn’t see coming. The director, Alex Proyas (“The Crow,” “I, Robot,” “Dark City,”) is known for his visuals and the movie’s set-pieces don’t disappoint. While it’s still a far cry from the four-star review Ebert gave it, it’s also much better than the D rating Entertainment Weekly gave it. I would give it a two and half to three star review – or a B, for those who speak EW-ese.

Though the movie’s overall content is debatable, one thing certainly is not: Nicolas Cage is absolutely terrible in it. I mean, God-awful. There are moments when his acting choices bring the otherwise entertaining proceedings to a screeching halt. His emotions range from dead-eyed and somnolent to TALKING VERY LOUDLY IN THAT NIC CAGE KIND OF WAY!!!!! It’s too bad, too, because even though the movie is already a hit, it could have been his “Sixth Sense,” a genre movie that actually elevates the genre by featuring stellar work from its star, which in that case was Bruce Willis. Like that blockbuster, “Knowing” kind of came out from nowhere and is still making money despite heavy competition from other spring hits like “I Love You, Man” and the aforementioned Vin Diesel car-porn movie. To paraphrase David Letterman during his notorious interview with Joaquin Phoenix, it’s too bad Nicolas Cage, the Oscar winner, couldn’t have been there.

What happened to this once truly talented actor? After making a noticeable debut in the 80s classic “Valley Girl,” he came into his own with the Coen Brothers’ seminal comedy “Raising Arizona.” His portrayal of the clueless and hen-pecked H.I. McDonough is one of the best comedic performances of all time. Back then, he knew when to use his Nic Cage “tics” to his advantage and not just as a way to show off how clever he is. The movie is hilarious, even 20 + years after its debut, but its story of a childless couple desperate for a family is very touching, thanks to Cage's and Holly Hunter’s believably funny roles.

Honestly, I was never crazy about Cage’s work in “Moonstruck” or “Peggy Sue Got Married,” but they were still quality films made by talented filmmakers . Of course, “Leaving Las Vegas,” the movie that won him his Oscar, is his best dramatic effort to date. He played a very convincing drunk – not as easy as it sounds – one who was not only heart-broken but also heart-breaking to watch. He could be the “kling-klang king of the rim-ram-room,” but he could also be a guy you just felt very, very, sorry for.

I think David Lynch may be to blame. Cage’s role in “Wild at Heart” came at a time when the star had lost some of his heat. That film has never been one of my favorites, but even if the movie kind of struck out, Cage was at least swinging for the fences with his role as a Elvis doppelganger.

Ever since then, he has infused many of his roles with his bizarre antics, like the aforementioned shouting or his wild gesticulations. It kind of works in a movie like “Weather Man,” in which his character finds himself by becoming slightly unhinged; maybe it works a little in “National Treasure” in which he is kind of a geek, but it absolutely does not work in “Knowing.” He’s supposed the center of this apocalyptic storm – the world is coming to an end, people! – but yet he forces unneeded quirkiness into his work. Obviously, Cage is a huge star now. Only someone with his box office clout could star in something like “Bangkok Dangerous” and have it still open at number one, even though the movie looks and smells like number two.

Certainly, Proyas needs to shoulder the blame as well. He’s the director, one with a certain reputation to boot, so he should know how to reign in his leading man when he goes off course. Maybe Cage is too big to be properly directed now – does any director tell Julia Roberts anything other than to do what she does so well? I guess it doesn’t matter in terms of his shelf-life as a movie star – his movies are bigger than ever. I just wonder if Cage, the actor, knows that Cage, the movie star, isn’t always the person we are paying to see.

After seeing “Knowing,” I came home and turned on cable. Wouldn’t you know it, Bravo was showing “Raising Arizona.” Even in its edited, pan and scanned, format, I fell in love with H.I. and the rest of the oddball characters all over again. In those days, Cage still had what his ill-gotten son in the movie, Nathan Jr., had – that “look in his eye.”

Sadly, that look was completely missing at the movies on Saturday night.

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