There’s yet another Nicolas Cage movie out this week, called Stolen. Cage loyalists, all eight of them, will make the pilgrimage to the cinemas to watch their acting god embarrass himself yet again. No Hollywood actor has been phoning in his performance more regularly and diligently than Cage. Fortunately, he is tremendous fun to watch whether he’s being serious or hammy, committed or inattentive. Raising Arizona and Leaving Las Vegas are among the movies that Cage admirers watch over and over again to remind themselves that once upon a time, there was a great actor who threw it away for no conceivable reason.
But each time it appears that Cage has sunk so low that he cannot sink any further, he resurfaces with a splash. Who else but Cage to play Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation? Spike Jonze’s mostly brilliant meta-movie, based on Kaufman’s screenplay, is about a scriptwriter named Charlie Kaufman who is struggling to adapt Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book The Orchid Thief. Charlie’s twin brother Donald, also played by Cage, pops up ever so often to offer words of discouragement. Writers and directors trip on Adaptation for its insights into the process of scriptwriting and the perils of writing yourself into a story. Chris Cooper’s laidback orchid thief nearly steals the movie from its lead, but he faces stiff competition, since there are two Cages, one neurotic and the other exuberant. The characters were based on Kaufman, but they could also have been inspired by Cage, whose schizoid self has resulted in two separate actors, one a future thespian and the other an uncaring buffoon.
And nobody but Cage could have been cast in German mischief-maker Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, said to be based on Abel Ferrara’s venerated police drama Bad Lieutenant. Herzog’s serio-absurd movie (the director says he hasn’t seen the original, and we believe him) of a crooked cop’s journey to redemption is set in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Cage is electric as a permanently hunched drug-addicted police officer who sets out to investigate the slaughter of an immigrant family. The path to knowledge is strewn with narcotics, alcohol, corruption, violence and iguanas. Yes, iguanas – this is Herzog at his playful best. Despite making the film for a Hollywood studio, the veteran filmmaker retains his idiosyncratic streak. There are no easy answers or explanations in his view of contemporary America, no facile moralising or false heroics. Cage’s temperament often gets out of control – he doesn’t spare an elderly woman and her nurse in an old-age home – but it’s nothing compared to the chaos that surrounds him. In the land of the demented, he is king.
(This weekly series, which appears on Fridays, looks at how the cinema of the past helps us make sense of the present.)