If Nicolas Cage had the focus and discipline to sit down and write a screenplay, then to get off his ass to direct it, AND THEN was given the free artistic reign of final cut, with no oversight to tame and restrain his overindulgent tendencies, Mandy would be the result.
And yet, if he had that focused discipline as an actor, that tamed restraint, then Mandy wouldn’t be nearly as entertainingly-distinct a movie.
I’ve written a lot on these pages about bad acting by starry names past their primes, and Nic Cage is too often mentioned alongside these worst of the worst: Bruce Willis, Al Pacino, Matthew Broderick, etc. But there’s a chasm of difference between them, even if detecting it requires a specific gaze.
The common line on Cage is that he’s so bad, he’s good. But such a sentiment ignores the possibility that actually might be his intention, deliberately picking roles that call for his particular brand of weirdness. There are gradients to questionably-intentional humor by highbrow actors reveling in lowbrow antics:
The likes of Willis and Broderick don’t seem to care enough — with their monotone, apathetic demeanors and line deliveries — to be able even to make a joke; they can’t be in a joke that doesn’t exist.
Pacino, on the other hand, cares intermittently, depending on the character, and sometimes even the scene. Deft filmmakers know how to wield his latter-day sensibilities in the service of fitting parts. But when misused, he doesn’t appear to be in on the joke his audiences now make of his absurd theatrics, which makes them that much funnier.
Cage, on the other, OTHER hand, REALLY CARES. No one can deny he always, ALWAYS, gives it his all, going ALL OUT in every direction, sometimes in too many directions, or in misdirections. But at least he’s committed enough to make clear, out-there decisions, thinking about more than just cashing paychecks (though I’m sure that’s on this notoriously Big Spender’s mind too). And at least he rejects the naturalism that’s all the rage these days — surrealism is considered too outsized in our age of chameleonic realism — but that doesn’t make his style any less truthful. In recent years, he’s usually been the experimental thumb sticking out of straight-to-VOD, B-movie fare.
But with Mandy, he’s finally found the right vehicle for his unique services.
An integral component in this recipe: he just seems too crazy for us to tell if he’s in on the joke, and that mystery proves essential to his thespian concoctions. Since he’s out of his mind — onscreen and off — he’s willing to go as far outside the box as he’s asked, or as he deems the material demands. Debatable self-awareness is key to this sort of humor; intentionally-unintentional comedy is a tricky tightrope to traverse.
But it can even pack subtle meaning. In Mandy, when he howls with orgasmic pleasure upon literally exploding an enemy’s head with his bare hands, it’s impossible not to laugh at the apparent overacting. And yet, this ridiculousness emphasizes the passionate allure of bloodlust revenge, of the interrelated nature of sex and violence, of conquering the desired; it’s no coincidence that he’s literally busting a head wide open, with bodily fluids flowing out.
Am I contradicting myself here by suggesting that intention indeed does matter in certain situations, running contrary to my previously-espoused belief that’s somewhat a central tenet of the approach a lot of my writing takes? Possibly. Maybe even probably. But for the alchemic art of unintentional comedy, seeing the transparent strings can fuck up the yucks.
Since intention is always unknowable, the effect of Nic Cage’s manic mania will always be subjective. But to me, he’s an auteur of intentionally-unintentional comedy, and Mandy is as groovy, gonzo, psychedelically-saturated, bizarre, breezy yet laborious, and radically-incohesive as you’d expect from a Nic Cage movie.
Nic Cage isn’t so bad he’s good; he’s just good.