In the tradition of Pirates of the Caribbean, Disney has liberally re-imagined one of its own beloved franchises for a big-budget live-action adventure. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice blasts onto the big screen this week. The trailer promises lightning, dragons, and all manner of flying debris. Nicolas Cage tops the bill as the Sorcerer, who, true to the actor’s signature style, promises to be in-your-face and just a little bit out there. Cage’s antics will no doubt play a large part in whether the movie flies or not. But hey, we’re always up for a roll of the dice.
A great thing happened in 1987, when the Coen brothers nabbed quirky character actor Cage for their film Raising Arizona, an exercise in lunacy that represented a career highlight for filmmakers and cast alike, including Holly Hunter and John Goodman. Cage plays H. I. McDunnough, a good-natured stickup artist who gets tangled up in a kidnapping, a prison break, and a bank robbery – all in the name of settling down to raise a family. If you haven’t had the pleasure, do yourself a favor and grab a copy of the movie today.
The average quality of Cage’s work stayed high over the next decade, but if a truck or a meteor had smashed him as he walked off the Arizona set, he would no doubt be remembered as a legend – the James Dean of screwball comedy. As it happens, he had plenty yet to do. He was just about born to play swaggering, wild-eyed Sailor (baby!) in David Lynch’s outrageous road romance, Wild At Heart (1990). He won a Best Actor Oscar in 1995 for his expert portrait of despair in Leaving Las Vegas. Would that he could never undermine the reputation he built in those years.
Cage takes delight in playing zany, larger-than-life characters. He is good at it. However, it’s not what every movie needs. Too often in recent years, this affinity has steered him into two kinds of trouble:
1) Plunging into big-concept flops, like National Treasure and The Wicker Man, which allow him to be as nutty as he wants, but mainly attract snide and disparaging press
2) A general unwillingness to tone himself down and go for subtlety, even when his intensity makes him – the actor, not the character – look ridiculous
For a recent and extreme example, take Werner Herzog’s bizarre and bewildering Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (2009). Based on the largely positive response to this film, I am prepared to take some heat for my position. Even a fine supporting cast and my unwavering regard for the director could not make this movie work for me. For all I know, Cage’s performance is an insightful and well-researched interpretation of a desperate cop running around on crack. That does not make it any easier to sit through. Sure, it’s a funny premise, but Cage plays the sordid lawman for too many belly-laughs, transforming what ought to be a sly black comedy into an all-out goofball circus. A little shred goes a long way, as though Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter or Willy Wonka – another famous case of GALT syndrome (Gifted Actor Losing Touch) – were barging into what should be a better film.
Enough. I come to praise Cage, not to bury him. He is content and comfortable playing over-the-top oddballs. He’s not the picture of versatility we once thought him to be, but he sure looks like he’s having fun up there. His biggest problem is picking the appropriate vehicle for what he loves doing. I don’t know what impediment, creative or otherwise, has kept him from working with the Coen brothers a second time. The three of them would do well to rediscover one another. Another Sailor and Lula film with David Lynch might be in order as well. There are plenty of clever little projects for a veteran wacko to choose from. But if you can afford it, it pays to be just a little bit selective. And Nic, you can afford it.
With all this in mind, let’s see if Disney can still deliver a decent summer thrill-ride. Stay tuned.
In the meantime, readers, answer back with your favorite dose of Cage, if you have one. Face/Off or Trapped in Paradise? Adaptation or maybe The Rock? Let’s remember the good times together.