Consistently Inconsistent: The highs and lows of Nicolas Cage

Depending on the movie in question, Nicolas Cage is either one of the best actors of his generation or a no-talent nutjob who was lucky enough to have a famous director for an uncle. While most actors experience their share of highs and lows throughout the course of their careers, Cage’s filmography is like a game of Russian roulette – you never know what to expect. Granted, he’s never been known for his subtlety, but even at his most outrageous, there’s always a chance that he can make a movie better.

More often than not, however, it just winds up as part of some hilarious video montage for our enjoyment. Even stranger is the way that it seems to happen in cycles. These last two years have seen the actor at the top of his game with memorable roles in “Kick-Ass” and “Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans,” while 2011 promises to deliver some surefire duds with “Season of the Witch” and “Drive Angry.” It seemed like the perfect opportunity for the Bullz-Eye staff to put together a list of his best and worst performances, but with so many to choose from, it was a lot harder than we thought.


“Adaptation” (2002)

Charlie Kaufman has written some of the most original movies of the last decade, but “Adaptation” is probably his best thanks to an incredible (and surprisingly reserved) performance from Nicolas Cage, who plays a fictionalized version of the screenwriter as he struggles to finish the script for the very film that the audience is watching. It’s all very meta like Kaufman’s other movies, but what separates it from the rest is seeing Cage tackle a character that’s so far off from anything he’s done before. Donning a balding wig and carrying a few extra pounds, Cage is just oozing desperation as the sweaty, neurotic loner. What makes the performance even more impressive is that he does it twice – also playing Charlie’s fabricated twin brother, Donald, who represents the real-life Kaufman’s problems with the Hollywood system. Though they’re physically identical, Donald is the complete opposite of his brother – a happy-go-lucky ladies man who’s able to knock out a million-dollar script on his first try. It’s a remarkable feat for an actor who tends to get a little out of control at times, and whether or not director Spike Jonze had anything to do with keeping him on a short leash, it’s what ultimately makes the role one of his absolute best. – Jason Zingale

“Leaving Las Vegas” (1995)

Preparing to make the film version of the late John O’Brien’s novel of boozy suicide, Nicolas Cage told Roger Ebert that he watched all the great Hollywood portrayals of alcoholics. The actor made sure that Ben Sanderson was different from all of them because he is different. To Ben, death is not an inconvenient outcome of gargantuan liquor consumption, it’s a key ingredient in the cocktail. As he calmly tells Sera, his slightly less damaged prostitute love (Elisabeth Shue), his plan is to drink himself to death in a city where last call never arrives. Neither Ben, nor Mike Figgis’s movie, has any interest in 12 Steps, rehab, or anything else that might extend his life. The film is an unapologetically romantic love story but not a redemption story in the usual sense, nor does Cage sell alcoholism short. From Ben romping through a supermarket liquor section in the brilliant first shot to his hyper-dramatic, gross overtures to random women, assorted humiliations, and the brutal, bluntly sexual and heartbreaking final scene with Shue, Cage shows us both the temporary fun of drunkenness and that his grief-destroyed ex-family man is suffering from a gruesome illness. We are also aware of the enormous sweetness and pain that would attract Sera, despite the obvious drawbacks of loving a suicidal drunk, and that Ben, like Cage, is a born manic entertainer. – Bob Westal

“Moonstruck” (1987)

When Cage was tasked with sweeping 41-year-old Cher off her feet in Norman Jewison’s Oscar-winning romantic comedy, he was the same age as Michael Cera is today. Nevertheless, Jewison and company were smart to see that the former Nicolas Coppola was the right choice for the hot-blooded Ronny Cammareri. The half-mad baker with a wooden hand possesses an operatic sensibility that sparks one of the strangest mutual seduction sequences in cinematic history. In true Cage style, it begins with a threat of suicide inspired by the arrival of his brother’s fiancee, Cher’s Loretta Castorini. “Bring me the big knife!,” he demands of a terrified assistant. It seems that Ronny has it in for his older brother Cosmo, because he blames him for distracting him prior to a baking accident, though it wasn’t really Cosmo’s fault. “I ain’t no freakin’ monument to justice!” he bellows. Before long he is calling Loretta a bride without a head and she’s calling him a wolf without a foot and it’s off to Italian-American drama-fueled bed with the both of them. “Moonstruck” put Cage on a fast track to superstardom and for good reason. It was to be a two-edged sword later on, but he was already mastering a highly distinctive style of thespian madness. – BW

“Raising Arizona” (1987)

Of all the characters Cage has played in his career, most of them were not what one would call soft-spoken, which is why his work in “Raising Arizona,” the Coen brothers’ love letter to screwball comedy, is so enjoyable. The Coens give the soul of a poet to Cage’s oft-captured petty crook H.I. McDunnough, resulting in Cage rarely speaking above a whisper, even when he’s kicking his boss’ ass for proposing that they switch wives. During the movie’s legendary chase scene, Cage hardly says anything at all, which makes the sequence in the supermarket even funnier. (Better still is Cage’s hair, which seems to get more unruly from one scene to the next.) It’s a delicate balancing act Cage does here, because he has to make you believe H.I. isn’t smart enough to keep out of jail, yet still likable enough that you can see why a police officer would agree to marry him. Indeed, one could argue that his work here has more heart than anything Cage has done before or since. – David Medsker

“Valley Girl” (1983)

Even director Martha Coolidge admitted to uncertainty when pitched the opportunity to helm a film called “Valley Girl,” but when one looks back at the best teen-themed flicks of the ‘80s, this “Romeo & Juliet”-inspired story of dating outside of one’s clique easily holds its own against John Hughes’s oeuvre. “Nicolas Cage” and “understated performance” rarely appear in the same sentence nowadays, but it’s a fair assessment of how he handles the role of Randy, the Hollywood punk who falls for a Valley girl (Deborah Foreman). Granted, there are moments where the benefit of hindsight allows us to see glimpses of the actor he would soon become, particularly when delivering lines like, “Oh, well, Peter Piper picked a pepper, I guess I did,” and, “Well, fuck you, for sure! Like, totally!” But in addition to the sweet chemistry Cage cultivates with Foreman, Randy and his punk partner in crime, Fred (Cameron Dye), make a great comedic duo. “Valley Girl” has such a bitchin’ soundtrack that it’d probably be remembered even without Cage, but despite a title that dates it to its decade of release, it’s a timeless romantic tale that’s rightfully held up as one of his best films. – Will Harris


“Deadfall” (1993)

This obscure mid-‘90s attempt at film noir by director Christopher Coppola (Cage’s older brother) had crossed our radar courtesy of clips in the already-classic “Nicolas Cage Losing His Shit” video, but thanks to a tip from fellow cult film aficionado Brian Wrestler, we’ve now seen far more of the movie than any non-masochist should. Although Coppola manages to keep the majority of his cast in check, including James Coburn, Peter Fonda, and even Charlie Sheen, he lets little brother Nicolas go completely gonzo. Yes, we realize that gonzo is a highly relative term, but given that “Deadfall” finds Cage wearing a bad wig and sunglasses, randomly delivering lines in a Mexican accent or like he’s just sucked on some helium, screaming bizarre non sequiturs at the top of his lungs, and even karate-chopping a guy while howling, “Hi-fucking-yah,” we’re comfortable with our word choice. Although Cage’s character bites the dust well before the end of the film, he’s worn out his welcome long before he’s sent head first into a deep fryer. But, hey, if you’re already twitching with excitement about seeing how truly bad his performance is, then far be it from us to prevent you from your fate. – WH

“Next” (2007)

In this very loose adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story, Cage returns to Las Vegas, his favorite haunt, as a magician with the ability to see into the future and avert danger. Besides dazzling meager audiences in a casino showroom, his character can also cheat at blackjack and avoid getting picked up by casino security. When a nuclear bomb goes missing, the government and a terrorist cell both want him for his abilities. Julianne Moore slums it in a one-note performance, Jessica Biel is a damsel in distress, and there are a few moments of “gotcha” from once promising director, Lee Tamahori. Meanwhile, Cage draws from his entire career of overacting to give us his full range of emotions: He’s funny like in “Moonstruck”! He’s romantic like in “Honeymoon in Vegas.” He’s philosophical like in “Adaptation.” He’s a stoic action hero like in “Con Air”! But mostly, he’s just plain awful, like in “Snake Eyes.” Who’s to blame for this mess? Well, Cage was one of the producers, so I’ll place the burden on his shoulders. Too bad we couldn’t see into the future and avoid this movie. – Scott Malchus

“Snake Eyes” (1998)

It’s difficult to blame Cage for signing up for this one. His last four movies grossed just over $1 billion worldwide, and the movie before that netted him his first Oscar. The man was bulletproof, and now Brian De Palma, fresh off of “Mission: Impossible,” wanted him to star in a conspiracy thriller-meets-disaster movie. (The disaster part of the story was ultimately removed.) How can he say no? Truth be told, it’s entirely possible – though we’re admittedly lacking objectivity on the matter – that “Snake Eyes” could have been a decent movie, had Cage toned it down a notch. Instead, he hit the nitrous and set New Jersey stereotypes back 30 years with his portrayal of corrupt Atlantic City cop Rick Santoro. To call him a jackass doesn’t quite do it justice; he’s an unwatchable jackass, and one gets the sense that De Palma was so wrapped up in the technical aspects of his direction – the big tracking shot, the sequences that cut through walls and over hotel rooms – that he never noticed that Cage was killing his movie. Cage has since scraped up a few good performances; De Palma, however, still hasn’t recovered, as anyone who saw “The Black Dahlia” will attest. – DM

“Trapped in Paradise” (1994)

Hard to believe, but Nicolas Cage actually out-overacts Jon Lovitz in this holiday film! Cage, Lovitz and Dana Carvey are brothers who rob a small town Pennsylvania bank and get trapped in that same small town (named Paradise) when a blizzard snows them in. While they sweat it out, Cage falls in love with Madchen Amick, who was likely wondering, “Whatever happened to the quality roles I was supposed to get after all the ‘Twin Peaks’ hype?” Throughout the movie, Cage has sudden outbursts of manic energy that seem to be coming from a completely different movie. All Lovitz, Carvey and the rest of the cast can do is look on in disbelief. Since this is a Christmas affair, you know that the crooks have a heart of gold and that everything will turn out all right, but “Trapped in Paradise” is one of those bad “SNL” skits that go on way too long. You have to give Cage credit, though; he seems to be trying anything to make the movie remotely funny. The only laughs come from how ridiculous he comes across and how bad the movie is. – SM

“The Wicker Man” (2006)

Everything you need to know about Neil LaBute’s remake of “The Wicker Man” can be found in a YouTube clip. That may not sound especially flattering, but it’s not supposed to. Nicolas Cage is given almost too much freedom as a sheriff investigating the disappearance of a young girl from an island run by a neo-pagan cult. The actor was clearly trying to make the most of a ridiculous plot that finds his character punching and kicking women (sometimes while dressed head to toe in a realistic bear suit), tortured by having his legs broken and subjected to massive bee attacks (to which he’s allergic), and ultimately burned alive in a giant wicker statue fit for the annual Burning Man event. Oh yeah, and that little girl he’s searching for? She’s the one who lights the match. In other words, the story is so batshit crazy that the only way for Cage to go was up, and he delivers a master class in overacting that doesn’t fan the flames of the film’s awfulness so much as it pours gasoline into the fire. Not a bad way to spend two hours if you’re looking to laugh, but you can be sure that wasn’t Cage’s intention. – JZ


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