In his schlocky paycheck movies, of which there are way too many, Nicolas Cage often pumps up his energy in a false, blowhard way. He glowers and throws tantrums and over-italicizes his emotions, as if trying to prove to his audience (or maybe to himself) that he’s still got it, that he really means it, man. He does the same thing in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Werner Herzog’s demon-rich, loopy, fascinating, and improbably entertaining remake of the 1992 Abel Ferrara dark-side-of-everything cult classic. The difference is that Cage is now doing his strenuous, bug-eyed intensity thing in character.
He plays a New Orleans homicide detective named Terence McDonagh who gets hooked on drugs — mostly cocaine and heroin — and is always getting high, on the job and off. Unlike the Harvey Keitel character in Ferrera’s film, McDonagh first comes to his addiction “innocently,” when he’s given a prescription for Vicodin after an on-the-job injury that has caused him permanent back pain. From there, it’s a quick leap to the illegal version of painkillers, which he steals from crime scenes, dealers, nightclub patrons, and the police vaults — anywhere he can get it. Even with that drug buffer, Cage walks stiffly, with a slightly crooked slouch and a barely perceptible tilt of the head; he’s the rogue cop as Igor.
He also makes McDonagh an aggressively functional druggie, one who uses controlled substances not simply to escape but to whip himself up into an adrenalized state beyond doubt or fear. It used to be said that the most accurate way to portray a drunk was to play him trying to act not drunk. That’s what real addicts do (they try to hide it), and it’s what Cage does here. Even when McDonagh is high as a kite, Cage shows you the ferocious anger and exhilaration coursing through his system — and also his attempt to keep a lid on it, which he does by speaking in that theatrically direct, overemphatic Nicolas Cage way. Only now it’s a desperate inside joke that he’s overstating his normal-guy facade on purpose, as a tactic.
In Bad Lieutenant, Cage is an actor playing an actor, and though the performance may take you back to the days when he went gonzo-operatic in pictures like Moonstruck or Vampire’s Kiss, what’s remarkable here is how controlled he is. You can always tell which drug McDonagh is on (asked to kiss the boots of fellow kinky cop Fairuza Balk, he does an exquisitely spaced-out heroin nod-out), and you can also tell whether he’s moderately high, really high, or deliriously high. Yet Cage also keeps you off balance; you never quite know when the rational police officer is going to slip into his crack-pipe bravado, or slip back from it. In general, the more the film goes on, the more stoned he gets, but Cage modulates the insanity, letting it escalate scene by scene. There’s a lot more supple Method to this madness than there first appears to be, since McDonagh isn’t just a loser junkie — he’s a wastrel, libertine cop with a purpose.
I love the original Ferrara film, with its exploitation underpinnings, but Herzog, working from an intricate script by William Finkelstein, has opened up the material into a full-scale modern-day noir — an overheated, neorealist Maltese Falcon set in a desolate, vividly photographed post-Katrina New Orleans. The movie has a plot that twists like a crazy snake. McDonagh is out to solve a mass gangland slaying, and as serious as he may be about catching the drug kingpin who everyone knows is responsible, the investigation keeps getting tangled up in his gambling habit, his attempts to keep his hooker girlfriend (Eva Mendes) happy and high, his suicide faceoff with a team of Mob goons, and various other kinds of trouble. Bad Lieutenant doesn’t go where you expect, but there’s a stubborn, trippy logic to it. It’s a meditative real-time thriller, and when Herzog finally does give us a shoot-out, it’s a doozy, complete with one dead character’s break-dancing soul. (I’m not making this up.) The movie also has alligators and iguanas — real live scaly ones, slithering over the highway, shot by Herzog in acid-head close-up, which doesn’t sound like a big deal until you realize that the only character in the movie who can see the iguanas is McDonagh. They’re a vision of evil, of the way that addiction drags you down into the serpent world. Bad Lieutenant makes that a scarily arresting place to be.
Over the last couple of years, I confess that I developed something of an aversion to Michael Cera. Much as I loved him in Superbad, he’d begun to seem like a one-trick pony, and the trick itself was starting to look a little…odd. The jarringly high, almost soprano voice and gawky turtle face, the ironic wimpy despair, the whole (sorry, but I can’t put this any other way) utter lack of a manly bone in his stringbean body. I just didn’t want to go there anymore. But now I’ve seen Youth in Revolt, the new movie directed by Miguel Arteta (Chuck & Buck), and though it’s a minor, offbeat coming-of-age comedy, fun and likable and at times a bit cute, it redeems Cera in an intriguing way.
He plays Nick Twisp, a fearful but outrageously verbally precocious teenage virgin who meets the soulful girl of his dreams (a hottie who loves Japanese art films!), played by appealing newcomer Portia Doubleday, who’s like a short, brainy Cybill Shepherd. Unfortunately, she’s attached, and the only way that Nick is ever going to win her is by getting in touch with his inner delinquent self. He creates a fantasy alter ego, an invincible mustached dude (also played by Cera) who shows Nick how to stop acting like a wuss. (It’s sort of the equivalent of what Bogart did for Woody Allen in Play It Again, Sam.)
Cera’s double performance has an amusing polished confidence. As the alter ego, he lowers his voice by an octave, and he pushes his “nice” self to get into all kinds of trouble: insulting men three times his size, crashing cars, sneaking into the girls’ dorm of a French prep school. The extreme anti-wimp behavior looks good on Cera. Youth in Revolt is, among other things, a Quirky Family Drama, which I also tend to have an aversion to. But Arteta, who has helmed close to a hundred television comedy episodes (on shows like The Office, Ugly Betty, and Six Feet Under), knows how to make even the silliest scenes pop. I say, free Michael Cera! Let him forever be in touch with his inner badass movie star the way he is in Youth in Revolt.