Greetings again from the darkness. David Bowie’s 1975 song “Fame” has a line, “Fame … what you get is no tomorrow”, and that stuck with me during the second half of this terrific and wild film from Norwegian writer-director Kristoffer Borgli (SICK OF MYSELF, 2022). Borgli not only tackles the issue of sudden fame and the weight that goes with it, but he also comments on ego and today’s cancel culture. Subtext runs throughout a film that feels descended from the mind of Charlie Kaufman and/or Spike Jonze.
Oscar winner Nicolas Cage is perfectly cast as Paul Matthews, a bland Evolutionary Biology professor, living a satisfactory life with his wife Janet (the always strong Julianne Nicholson) and their two daughters Sophie (Lily Bird) and Hannah (Jessica Clement). As for his career, Paul, always dressed in a sweater and green jacket, is frumpy and awkward and an undistinguished faculty member who speaks frequently of writing a book, though he never actually writes anything.
Things change quickly for Paul as he begins showing up in people’s dreams. As in his life, Dream-Paul doesn’t do much other than ‘be there’, but as the number of people who experience this grows exponentially, Paul becomes a celebrity … leading to the publicity machine we’ve witnessed many times in real life. Basically, Paul goes viral. Cage masters the delivery of this line: “Have you been dreaming about me?”, and it’s the point where we recognize he is delivering an outstanding performance. When do-nothing dream-Paul turns aggressive and violent in folk’s dreams (now nightmares), his experience shifts dramatically. Cancel culture kicks in and Paul becomes an outcast or pariah. Filmmaker Borgli could draw from numerous real-life situations where teachers have been dismissed for absurd reasons … OK, maybe not as absurd as actions in a dream, yet the concept is the same.
Borgli was surely inspired by Spike Jonze’s excellent ADAPTATION (2002), which featured Nic Cage in a dual role (as Kaufman and his fictional brother). Although this isn’t technically a dual role, Cage certainly gets to carve a wide swath through the film and through dreams … and he appears to be having a great time doing so. Supporting work is provided by Dylan Baker, Tim Meadows, Dylan Gelula, and Kate Berlant. Michael Cera has a humorous sequence as a PR agent at a marketing firm that is trying to cash in on Paul’s newfound fame as a “dream influencer”. We even see capitalism at work in a further attempt to create an industry out of this flukey situation.
The brilliance of the film stems from Borgli presenting this as an entertaining comedy-horror film with ‘everyman’ Paul at the center. It’s a clever idea that is not-so-subtle in its willingness to show us how easily cancel culture can spin out of control and how monetizing our addiction to attention can go wrong. One specific thing that I admired in Borgli’s approach was how he made Paul a normal guy, and yet, he’s one of those who always believes someone has wronged him or stolen his work – despite the fact that he never actually produces any work or takes his own risk. There is so much to like about this film, not the least of which is one of Nicolas Cage’s best ever performances (even in David Byrne’s oversized suit).
Opens in theaters on December 1, 2023