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Thursday, Nov. 3, 2005 11:20 pm

Cagey Nicolas

It’s a return to form for Nicolas Cage, an expert at quirky roles

The Weather Man appears to be a return to form for Nicolas Cage, who first gained attention with a series of quirky characters in oddball independent features. In recent years, though, big-budget popcorn movies have dominated his image. Many of his choices in that regard have been good, particularly Con Air (1997) and the astounding action thriller Face/Off (1997). Even National Treasure (2004) isn’t half bad, thanks to Cage’s presence. The roles of his early days are, nevertheless, sorely missed, and this is where you will find some of his best work. Before dropping his real name, Nicholas Coppola, Cage had a small role in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). He subsequently decided that he didn’t want to ride the coattails of his famous Uncle Francis, and he changed his surname to Cage for his first starring role, in Valley Girl (1983). Cage’s charisma was instantly noticeable, and it raised this Romeo and Juliet-inspired comedy above the level of most teen flicks of the era. The quintessential Cage role is H.I. McDonnough, the charming trailer-trash crook in Raising Arizona (1987). The Coen brothers’ camera pyrotechnics were at their peak, but Cage was never overshadowed. Raising Arizona also boasts a brilliantly intricate script with an endless flow of quotable dialogue. Cage has never appeared in a better film. Vampire’s Kiss (1989) is a real curio, giving Cage one of the strangest roles of his career. He portrays a literary agent who believes that he has been bitten by a vampire and undergoes a psychological transformation into a blood-sucking creature. Cage’s performance is so hammy and extreme that it pushes the film to another level of lunacy. Vampire’s Kiss is rarely mentioned in Cage’s bios, but it shows how far an actor will go for his craft. Cage finally had the opportunity to work with David Lynch, the king of movie weirdness, in Wild at Heart (1990), a road journey into madness. Cage and co-star Laura Dern are a couple, with delusions of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, on the run from her psychotic mother (Dern’s real-life mom, Diane Ladd), and Lynch ups the pop-culture quotient by throwing in some Wizard of Oz. It’s a freakish gem. Cage’s career as an actor is much more varied than his action fans probably realize, and there is much to explore. He has no fewer than nine films on the docket after The Weather Man, including Oliver Stone’s 9/11 movie and a sequel to National Treasure.
New releases on DVD on Tuesday (Nov. 8): Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Christmas with the Kranks, Yes, and Après vous.
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