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Nicolas Cage Is an Axiom

But we'll explain him anyway

Nic Cage has a film with Werner Herzog coming out next week, and "serious actor" respect coming back with it. What's next? Something called Kick-Ass, and a live-action film of Disney's The Sorcerer's Apprentice, in which, according to a production still, Cage appears hydrocephalic, wearing a hawk for a hairpiece. What does he think he's doing?

Gifted and prodigal like his hero, Elvis, Cage blows through prestige as fast as paychecks. He won an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas—then did the mid-'90s multiplex Holy Trinity of The Rock, Face/Off, and Con Air. His career swam upstream with an addiction to mangled accents (the William F. Buckley surfer dude of Vampire's Kiss), sculpted cowlicks (Raising Arizona), props (Moonstruck's wooden hand), and silent-film mannerisms (all of the above), and he has been making deeply weird choices ever since.

Right now, Cage's perceived standing among screen actors is as questionable as his hairline. As early as 1998, Sean Penn decided that his old friend was "no longer an actor . . . he's more like a performer." And just this year, Entertainment Weekly asked, "Nicolas Cage: Artist or Hack?"

As with Style vs. Substance and Humanism vs. Condescension, such Manichaeism betrays the vagaries of art. Cage is Artist and Hack, and he still gives more pleasure from one of his startling horselaughs or kabuki outbursts than most actors do at their most resourceful. Cage doesn't chastely wait around for distinguished parts. If his filmography is ungainly, his pace has left no time for the dry rot of self-importance and spurious dignity to set in. He remains that most critically distrusted of adjectives: fun.

2002's Adaptation was the last movie Cage made with any hip cache—but he hasn't been coasting since. His tic-riddled conman in the uneven Matchstick Men is a well-landed stunt. The National Treasure movies are great kid's stuff, Indiana JonesGunga Din swashbucklers that replace colonial arrogance with hambone patriotism. Far from losing the actor in spectacle, they work by virtue of Cage's eternal sincerity—who else could pull off taking the Declaration back to Independence Hall with the heartfelt sigh of, "The last time this was here . . . it was being signed."

I'll 'fess to preferring Ghost Rider's corny carnival Satanism to Christian Bale's pretentious Batmans. And Cage at least committed himself to going down to the bottom with Neil LaBute's gynophobic revision of The Wicker Man, to the joy of Internet churls. Cage may make bad decisions—his reaction shots while watching snuff footage in the heinous 8MM is some of the wildest overacting I know—but it's this willingness to tempt absurdity that lets him sometimes be sublime. From an old interview: "The worst thing is to be boring or mediocre. . . . At least you can talk about it if it's bad." (Another choice one: "If I do fight, I fight to kill. My motto had always been: maximum violence immediately.")

Despite the cultivated Coppola heritage—Uncle Francis directed, recently deceased father August taught, mother choreographed—Cage is allergic to putting on airs. Embracing "mainstream" movies (that is, movies that the plebes have some interest in going to see), he has never mouthed the "one for them, one for me" excuse. He actually seems to like this stuff. Biography Hollywood's Wild Talent reveals that Mom, during spats, would claim Nic was the illegitimate son of Robert Mitchum—not true, but apt, given his slumming, the poetic eyes, and the rockabilly purr that is his most (only?) convincing accent.

As I write, Cage's Hearst-like holdings—a dinosaur skull, a car fleet, two islands, two castles—are disappearing in a back tax fire sale (like the King, he's been profligate in charity, too). It's impossible to know to what degree moneylust has steered the last decade of Cage's career, but he has provided his own autocritiques. Consider The Weather Man (2005), a squirmy character study made improbably moving when read as Cage's film a clef, in which he plays a middle-aged man with a disappointed highbrow father and a broken marriage, who tries to buy love by getting overpaid to emote in front of a green screen. Through Lord of War—only slightly too preoccupied with being cool to be a classic—Cage drains until hollow as an arms dealer striver, stoned numb with success.

When he cameoed as Dr. Fu Manchu in a fake Grindhouse trailer, the joke was that it was the kind of movie you could imagine Cage doing if he were born 30 years earlier, wrangling over every loose paycheck in town with Klaus Kinski. Which brings us to the upcoming Bad Lieutenant: New Orleans Port of Call. Cage's fellow traveler on the road of excess, Herzog, sews a crazy quilt of weird acting styles, stiff dialogue, and the best New Orleans locations since Juvenile's "Ha" video. Cage, in the title role, is given license to tantrum, his face flaccid, smile gruesome, seedy in poplin, downright Richard III in his truss. It's a strangely sweet, fascinating movie, and probably his Comeback Special. But what is that dead-tongue oral anesthesia voice he drifts into?

 
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