Nicolas Cage Is Having Too Much Fun

11/18/2009 4:00 AM |

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Directed by Werner Herzog

Earlier this year in A Perfect Getaway, Timothy Olyphant’s excitable war vet names the actor he would most like to play himself in a proposed movie about his incredible but true experiences from Operation Iraqi Freedom: Nicolas Cage. “My man gets all intense AT THE END OF A SENTENCE,” he proclaims in a perfect imitation of our hammiest national treasure, the joke being that only someone as overdramatic and slightly touched as Olyphant’s character would want Cage to represent him on screen.

Cage perhaps deserves more credit than this, but he makes it hard for people to make that investment. In a lengthy essay in last week’s Village Voice, Nick Pinkerton defended Cage from charges of hackdom by citing the actor’s rare gift for panache: “If his filmography is ungainly, his pace has left no time for the dry rot of self-importance and spurious dignity to set in. He remains that most critically distrusted of adjectives: fun.” But the question remains: is Cage having fun for his sake only? Certainly his most memorable recent moments have been entirely inadvertent (see: the infamous YouTube Wicker Man montage); more importantly, ages have passed since Cage created a successful screen character that wasn’t a slightly modified version of his intensely focused/unpredictably explosive shtick. For an actor, obliviousness can easily be the flip side to over-consciousness-is it going too far to say Cage and George Clooney merely luxuriate in different brands of the same self-love? It’s fun to have fun, but it takes effort and risk to leave your comfort zone; Cage doesn’t seem to want to abandon his anytime soon.

Now Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans exemplifies the best and worst consequences of Cage’s thespian instincts. On one hand, this character study cum policier—written by NYPD Blue and Law & Order scribe William M. Finkelstein and directed by needs-no-introduction Werner Herzog—is nothing if not brink-of-train-wreck enjoyable. Cage plays Terence McDonough, an NOPD officer first shown swiping nudie pics of a fellow cop’s wife and then rescuing a drowning prisoner during Hurricane Katrina. The Jekyll and Hyde pattern repeats throughout: McDonough stops his former partner (Val Kilmer in a blink-or-miss-it role I unconsciously imagined was being performed by an old, doughy Kilmer impersonator) from slapping around a witness, but also steals heroin from the police property room and shows up to work high (suffering a hunched back caused by the Katrina rescue, Vicodin just isn’t enough to kill the pain); he helps his recovering alcoholic father deal with a drunk wife and needy dog, but also scopes out nightclubs to blackmail college-age druggies into watching him fuck their girlfriends; he seriously cares about solving a vicious quintuple homicide-the film’s central plot-but shakes down the clients of his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes), gambles recklessly, cuts off an elderly woman’s oxygen supply to force her caretaker into giving up information, etc, etc.

In almost any other case this would be gritty, noirish stuff, but Lieutenant instead takes unabashed, gleeful pleasure in Cage’s outrageousness as he freaks out even hardened criminals with random bursts of laughter, inappropriate boastfulness (“I love it! I love it!” he exclaims as he delivers a suspect into custody), and crime scene cocaine sniffing and blunt smoking. In this sense Herzog—the man who somehow wrangled Klaus Kinski into semi-coherence and once presided over an anarchic cast of frenzied dwarfs—acts as Cage’s enabler by indulging his every scenery-chewing whim, including a bizarre accent and/or speech impediment—either an imitation of severe cotton mouth or Jimmy Stewart on Novocaine—which appears and disappears midway through the film without explanation. To visually complement Cage’s constantly whacked-out state, the New German Cinema legend provides intermittent up-close-and-personal, “I’m still a daredevil!” shots of alligators and iguanas (the latter scored to Johnny Adams’ “Release Me” in a sequence that jarringly disrupts the narrative for several unbelievable minutes) and at one point a particularly delirious image of the personified “soul” of a murdered man breakdancing into the afterlife. Only the most humorless viewer will find these moments “gratuitous.”

But neither are they worth taking seriously. While Herzog has denied any connection between this movie and the 1992 Abel Ferrera one from which it takes its title, similarities are unavoidable: both concern dirty cops, compulsive behavior, and redemption, but where Ferrera and original bad lieutenant Harvey Keitel sincerely evoked their anti-hero’s self-destructive anguish, Herzog and Cage play McDonough for shits and giggles—due to Cage’s self-absorbed buffoonery, not for a second does it feel as if the character poses a threat to himself or to anyone else. (For all the comparisons Port of Call draws between Cage and a menagerie of animals, it’s Keitel’s searing, high-pitched cry that so devastatingly renders him some feral yet pathetic creature). Loosely associated source material aside, Herzog does justice to his New Orleans and Mississippi locations with impressive long takes (a handheld shot following McDonough through a house and around back to another one is a highlight), making it all the more perplexing that the film’s unique sense of place should at a certain point become overshadowed by the endless reel of Cagian antics. And as an appropriate capper, the film’s sober, cyclical ending gets handled with just as much carelessness as a preceding trick happy ending in which three strokes of good luck land on McDonough’s lap literally within seconds of each other. Such gonzo, non sequitur moviemaking can’t be entirely denied, but it’s here Port of Call officially seals itself, like so much of Cage’s career—and with the additional resemblance of appearing ambiguously unintentional—as camp.

Opens November 20