Willy’s Wonderland (
directed by Kevin Lewis
starring Nicolas Cage)
There’s an interview with Paul Schrader talking about his experience of working with Nicolas Cage on the movie Dog Eat Dog, the sporadically successful take on the Edward Bunker novel that was released in 2016. Schrader attempts to explain why Cage suddenly switches to a full on Humphrey Bogart impression at the end of the film. “That was not in the book. That was not in the script,” said Schrader, “Nic had this idea for his character who thought himself, somewhat foolishly, as Humphrey Bogart, so he was doing Bogart things, which I wasn't that crazy about, but I wasn't going to pick a fight over it. I could always cut it out. But there was this whole nagging issue of the last scene…”
Yes, that final scene. Cage goes full Bogart. Says Schrader: “He kind of stunned this on me on the day we were shooting that […] all of a sudden he's doing it as Bogie and I was like, ‘Whoa, you sure you want to do that?’ And he said, "I think this is a bold choice." I said, "Yeah, I think it is, too."
A bold choice is perhaps a euphemistic term for some of Cage’s most memorable screen appearances from his early idiosyncratic breakout role in Raising Arizona, through the thuggish poetry of Wild At Heart via the demented Vampire’s Kiss and way, way beyond. Once you never knew quite what Cage would do from one minute to the next but you just had to keep watching. Eventually Cage defined his acting style as being “nouveau shamanic”. David Lynch called him “the jazz musician of American acting.” And Ethan Hawke praised him for taking acting away from naturalism and back to the time of the troubadours.
And this is all great. Mostly I’d watch any film with Cage in. Mostly I have. I’m such a fan I visited his grave in New Orleans and he isn’t even dead. From the masterclass in Leaving Las Vegas to the disaster-class of The Wicker Man, I’m there. Bear with him long enough through his childhood wish-fulfilment turns as Johnny Blaze and sundry tedious family friendly cash-grab adventures and he’ll kick you in the teeth with a film like Joe and remind you that all that goofing and gurning is actually just an act and he can do this thing. You know, actually act, not just act acting, just about as well as anybody of his generation. When he’s Nic Cage playing a part. Not Nic Cage playing Nic Cage playing a part.
Another thing Schrader talked about was budgets. “Nic gets your movie financed,” said Schrader. “That's the good news. The bad news is that he eats up most of your budget in the process of getting it financed because you end up basically paying him the budget.” (On Dog Eat Dog the money was so skewed in Cage’s favour that Cage himself paid co-star Willem Defoe $100,000 to keep him on the picture.) So maybe, just maybe that goes some way to explain the train of just plain bad films Cage has made in recent years. Get him in and you’re guaranteed to get the film off the ground. And you don’t even need to worry about the tricky stuff like developing the script or making serious casting choices because you won’t have any money left for any of that.
At this stage the hit ratio of NC pictures is pretty low so when something like Color Out of Space happens, currently the holder of my Best-Cage-In-An-Age award, it’s more than likely a glorious fluke but it keeps you coming back just for one more. Okay, maybe just one more.
I know a lot people loved Mandy but for me the “jazz acting” Cage dropped in that was nothing more than you’d expect. It was Cage performing as Cage. It was the predictable unpredictability of Nicolas Cage. Not the twitchy madness of the actor at his most free-form more a mannered tic that tricks, a nods towards what’s gone before. And this is exactly everything that’s wrong with Willy’s Wonderland.
Cage plays a near mute drifter who is tricked into staying overnight at a cursed family restaurant. Think Chuck E Cheese or, if you’re in the UK, maybe the Rainforest Cafe. One of those places where there are robotic animals to entertain you while you eat. If you are a child. Only, get this, these ones are cursed. There is no point breaking down the plot for inconsistencies or logic. It is what it is. A back of the napkin sketch to provide our hero with something to fight. Animatronic animals. Again and again. Cage’s character has a bit of business with a soda can and a t-shirt change that act as the fill on the one note solo his jazz hands are conjuring here. And the anonymous supporting cast can barely deliver an undercooked punchline between them. Like most films created to be “so bad they’re good” (Sharknado ad nauseum) this film isn’t. It’s just bad. A genre film with no heart. As cynical as a cash register programmed to short change the customer.
He could make these films forever. He probably will. The word is that a sequel is already planned and incoming this year is The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, where the snakeskin jacket representing a symbol of individuality, and belief in personal freedom. finally eats its own tail as Cage plays himself playing himself, playing himself, playing himself. And, you know, I bet I watch it.
Willy’s Wonderland is available on most on-demand platforms in the USA now and in the UK from April 12 and DVD/Blu-ray on April 19.
Kirk Lake is a writer, musician and filmmaker. His published books include Mickey The Mimic (2015) and The Last Night of the Leamington Licker (2018). His films include the feature films Piercing Brightness (2014) and The World We Knew (2020) and a number of award winning shorts.
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