4.10.14 update: You can analyze Nicolas Cage’s eccentrically eclectic career all you want. We certainly have scratched our heads over it too. Once an indie darling, Cage’s career transformed and morphed over the years into a kind of studio grotesque, but as he explained in the interview quotes linked below, to the actor it was all part of a restless, try-anything, break-all-rules plan. With David Gordon Green’s “Joe” arriving in theaters this weekend—featuring one of Cage’s best and most restrained performances in years, a real return to his roots and real acting—we thought, we’d revive this still-very relevant feature retrospective from last year. “Joe” is a small film (review here, recent interview with Cage here) and could certainly use the extra love.
Yes, the career of Nicolas Cage has taken what one can argue is a serious nosedive in recent years. His frightening hairline has become the butt of endless jokes, his personal life is always a mess (he named his son Kal-El after Superman and he's on his third wife), and his take-a-paycheck career choices of late (seemingly endless riffs on "Taken" that barely get theatrical releases, things like "Seeking Justice," "Stolen," "Trespass," and on the way, a reboot of the bonkers Biblical apocalypse flick "Left Behind") have made him an even bigger laughing stock (maybe the tax problems and reported ridiculous spending habits explain these terrible tendencies).
But if you stop to take notice and perhaps cool on the cheap shot jokes for a second, one can realize that the good far outweighs the awful in his oeuvre and we always hold out hope that Cage will course-correct and end up back in quality fare. But in fact, it seems like Cage likes to switch it up as much as possible if only for his own creative sake. "If you look at the work carefully, there’s a ‘Bad Lieutenant’ and then there’s a "Knowing.' " And there’s a “Lord of War” and a “National Treasure”…I’m always trying to make things eclectic," he stressed in a recent Playlist interview that took place in Berlin. And there's some promising stuff on the way, not least of which is David Gordon Green's "Joe." And it's a signal of more good things to come. "Now I want to really go back to my roots and reinvent myself again, and go back to 'Leaving Las Vegas' or 'Vampire’s Kiss,' " he told us. "Do these smaller, independently spirited dramatic movies. That’s the direction I want to really zero in on right now."
With this weekend seeing the release of Cage-voiced animation "The Croods," which looks like the biggest hit the actor's had in a while, and while it's no great shakes is better than anything he's made in a few years, we thought we'd take this opportunity to run down Cage's idiosyncratic career and sometimes wonderfully unhinged performances. Fingers crossed we get more to add to the Cage canon before too long.
"Wild At Heart" (1990)
“This snakeskin jacket is a symbol my individuality and belief in personal freedom," is the oft-repeated maxim declared by Cage's character Sailor Ripley in “Wild At Heart,” David Lynch's swooning, sexy, creepy road trip to Oz, and applies to the kooky Cage as well (the jacket used in the film was his own). Could this be Cage at his peak? His embodiment of Sailor is sensual, menacing and just plain cool -- but his smoking chemistry with Laura Dern is some of the hottest ever onscreen. The Elvis nut swaggers and drawls like the King himself, crooning his ballad “Love Me,” but brings a looseness and relaxed humor to the performance, a greater feat than the high-tension campy scenery chewing evinced by the rest of the cast. He turns in a highly stylized physical performance (a rare commodity in this day and age) and manages to ground the universe of wacky characters swirling around him, with a skilled nuance and real genuine emotion. In the special features, Dern describes her mother Diane Ladd as the perfect Lynchian actor (and she is truly amazing and transcendent in this), but it could be argued that Cage, with his laissez-faire theatricality, willingness to fully engage in Lynch’s absurd hyperreality, and commitment to the truth of character and story is, in fact, the real perfect Lynchian actor. Can we cross our fingers for a reunion? [A]
"Vampire's Kiss" (1988)
While not as lauded as say "Raising Arizona," god, Nicolas Cage was never better than he was in the late 1980s. Directed by Robert Bierman, most people have long forgotten this B-movie vampire comedy, but there's one key thing to remember: it's written by Joseph Minion, the man who wrote Martin Scorsese's dark, strange and surreal 24-hour classic, "After Hours," and tonally the picture is just as weird. The film centers on a douchebag yuppie publishing executive (Cage) who, when he has a random sexual encounter with a woman with a fondness for neck biting (Jennifer Beals), thinks he's turning into a vampire. Of course it's all in his head (or is it?) and he goes to bizarre lengths to prove to himself that he's become a bloodsucker, including losing his shit and torturing his poor assistant (Maria Conchita Alonso) with impossibly menial tasks. The role, notoriously known for Cage eating live cockroaches, is essentially a descent into madness and it's Cage at his unhinged, manic best, but it's well calibrated, knowing exactly when to pop like a madman and when to simmer like a deliciously semi-sane fruitcake teetering on the edge (oh, and the Looney Toons facial expressions throughout are a laugh riot). [B+].
"Leaving Las Vegas" (1995)
In this loose, jazzy and affecting performance that won Nicolas Cage the Academy Award (and seemingly gave him the financial leeway to do tepid action movies for the next decade plus), he plays a surrendered man who has decided to completely bail out on life (and strangely happy with his decision); an alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter who goes to Las Vegas to drink himself to death, only to fall in love with a prostitute (played by a superb Elisabeth Shue). Just, you know, not enough to not drink himself to death. In the skilled hands of director Mike Figgis, he turns a prolonged, potentially hard-to-watch tragedy into something artful and heartrending. And thanks to Cage's wet performance, which wonderfully sidesteps any potential parody (since "the drunk" is a cliche as old as Hollywood itself), you feel for this character, no matter how reprehensible or irresponsible his behavior might be. What happens in 'Vegas' breaks your fucking heart and it certainly convinced the Academy. [A-]