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Is Nicolas Cage any good?

It’s the kind of question that might be more fun to pose than to answer, like “Do I dare to eat a peach?” or “What does a woman want?”

Still, Community, that beloved, beleaguered NBC sitcom which returned Thursday night, dedicated a substantial portion of its second season-five episode to the above question, ultimately calling it unanswerable. And Community rarely bumbles its discussions of popular culture.

Set at a fictional community college named Greendale (mascot: the Human Beings; smell: don’t ask about the smell), Community, like many television comedies, centers on a group of lovable misfits. One of these, Abed Nadir, played by Danny Pudi, is an amateur filmmaker with Asperger’s who finds his joie de vivre in cheesy movies and cult TV shows, like the one (META! META!) he knowingly stars in.

Abed has a holodeck for his imagination (he doesn’t call it that, but that’s what it is) and there’s an entire episode about him trying to watch Blade in peace, so when a Greendale drama professor poses the question — is Nic Cage actually talented as an actor? — Abed delights in the riddle… until it drives him mad.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUhAomup4E0

He was in Con Air, The Rock and Face/Off, Abed says, rattling off two solid action movies and one stupendous one, and you think you have the star figured out, but then with catastrophic misfires like Wicker Man, the nephew of Francis Ford Coppola and Academy Award winner for Leaving Las Vegas really “begs you to stop” watching him.

The seemingly irreconcilable quality range of Mr. Cage’s resume (honestly, how do Adaptation and 8 mm star the same person? How?) reduces Abed to a raving, Cage-y mess, but not before Community has dropped some grade-A analysis in our laps. Ultimately, again, the show claims that Nicolas Cage’s skills or lack thereof is the sound of one hand clapping, but I think there’s a simpler answer out there.

Yes, yes, Virginia, this critic says, Nic Cage is talented as an actor, if cursed with horrible taste and judgment. My thought process is thus: While it is possible, if not inevitable, for a good actor to turn in bad performances, genuinely bad actors can’t be good more than once or twice.

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Cage’s misfires outnumber his hits by an overwhelming margin, but hits there are, and we do ourselves a disservice as movie-watchers to toss them aside. Wild at Heart might be David Lynch’s most underrated film, Raising Arizona is still my favorite Cohen brothers and Moonstruck really holds up to repeat viewing. Cage is excellent in all three, passionate and alive, and the last one earned him his first first Golden Globe nomination.

True, most Nicolas Cage movies are trash, either hit trash like National Treasure and Ghost Rider or flop trash like Snake Eyes and Drive Angry, but the actor has been compelling as recently as Kick Ass, and those two Academy Award-noticed performances (Leaving Las Vegas and Adaptation) really are impossible to dismiss.

Dismiss them, however, Community did with Shirley delivering the best line of the episode: “I don’t know, if I was in 70 films over 30 years and spent each one talking at random volumes, I might accidentally win an Oscar.” Ouch.

Nic Cage is weird, often off-puttingly so, and his insane hair and vocal deliveries usually take away more than they add, even in the movies we like. The Rock is tons of fun; Cage in The Rock is embarrassing.

But with the right script and the right costars, he’s just a natural born movie star. John Woo’s Face/Off gets a lot of undeserved hate for its visage-swapping premise, as well as its power-chord sincerity — its dramatic lack of snark and irony — but it’s one of the finest action movies ever made. It’s beautiful and thrilling and it hinges on Cage and John Travolta delivering blockbuster turns as both a haunted FBI agent and his hedonistic terrorist nemesis. In the first 20 minutes, Cage makes a splashy, unforgettable impression as the demonic mercenary Castor Troy, and then for the rest of the film he goes slow-burn as “super cop” Sean Archer trapped behind Troy’s face.

Face/Off is a terrific movie that would not be so were Cage himself not terrific it. Don’t believe me? Go back and try it again, because this is exactly where the actor belongs. All those Nic Cage ticks are there — the bug-eyes, the random yells — but in the service of a big, widescreen story rooted in humanity. A bad actor just couldn’t be this good.

Speaking of talented actors, Community is losing one of its own best performers as Donald Glover is set to leave the show to spend more time as Childish Gambino, his wonderful rap alter ego. It will be difficult for the series not to suffer with his exit, particularly when he delivers such delightful slams as this one, while his TV is making random Nic Cage grunt and gasp noises: “I mean, he seems scared to smell that flower, but happy to get shot?”

Or this one, later in the classroom: “I think he’s a genius. I mean, he keeps getting hired for some reason, and it’s not because of his hair.”

That’s true: it’s not.

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