Should we worry about Nicolas Cage? Watching this gifted actor in the lush new war romance Captain Corelli's Mandolin, as he struts and frets so handsomely and woos starlet-of-the-moment Penelope Cruz--as he pays obeisance to all the courtly gestures of the traditional leading man--a viewer has to wonder if Cage is tethered forever to the peculiar job description of Movie Star.
Cage used to be just an actor--a fabulously unpredictable one, equal parts promise and menace. For his first decade in movies, he danced on the weird side: as a blond goofball in Valley Girl, the blind Vietnam vet of Birdy, Moonstruck's one-handed Romeo, the drifter haphazardly hired as a killer in Red Rock West. With a personality that mixed yelping hound dog with doleful hangdog, Cage raised moping to an art. He suggested a man wrestling with himself to hide the psycho loner or lover within. He was sweet on the surface and wild at heart.
Then in 1996 he had one of those years actors dream of: he won an Oscar for his performance as a suicidal alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas, and he became Hollywood's newest action star in The Rock. Cage has since concentrated on macho-mayhem movies and winsome love stories. His work is as popular with filmgoers as it is ignored by critics. Aside from four Blockbuster Entertainment awards in five years, the only citations he's received are for speeding in Jerry Bruckheimer transport epics like Con Air and Gone in 60 Seconds.
Corelli, adapted by Shawn Slovo from Louis de Bernieres' novel, casts Cage as an Italian soldier occupying the Greek island of Cephalonia in the early days of World War II. Since the Italians, as Corelli says, are lovers and not fighters (don't tell Tony Soprano), he and his men spend their time singing Verdi, dancing in the square and making the ladies happy. Apparently only the Nazis took war seriously back then; when Germany takes over the island, atrocity is only a plot twist away.
This being a major-studio production--director John Madden's first since his Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love--the main Greeks are played by an Englishman (John Hurt), a Welshman (Christian Bale) and a Spaniard (Cruz, pre-Tom Cruise). Corelli is a coffee-table movie: one leafs through the gorgeous vistas and nods through the narrative. That leaves plenty of time to ponder Cage's dilemma. Does he keep paddling in the mainstream or return to the edge of weirdness?
He may do the latter with Adaptation, from the Being John Malkovich team of Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze. Meanwhile, we shouldn't rush to judge Cage or devalue his recent work. He was never one to do the expected. He took the hard way to stardom, with quirky portrayals in orphan movies. He may now be doing something even braver: anchoring serious or silly films with the haunting loneliness and eccentric rhythms that, even as a star, he can't shake. To invest his special gravity in nice-guy roles--this may be the strange quest and triumph of Nic the Nice.
--By Richard Corliss