Hapless family man Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage) finds his life turned upside down when millions of strangers suddenly start seeing him in their dreams in this blackly comic film from Norwegian director Kristoffer Borgli. Making his English-language debut, Oslo-born writer-director Kristoffer Borgli (Sick of Myself) follows the rise and fall of one man’s fifteen minutes of fame, a mordantly funny and playfully twisted take on the collective consciousness of modern life, where just about anyone can suddenly become a strange kind of celebrity, and fall back into obscurity or infamy just as quickly. It was Borgli’s film “Drib” that screened at SXSW in 2017 where I saw it as Press that alerted the L.A. executives that this young man had a very unusual point-of-view and the skills to translate his vision(s) to the screen.
The 38-year-old appeared with his film at the Music Box Theater on Saturday, October 15, 2023, as part of the 59th Chicago International Film Festival. Of this amazingly hilarious and original film and his burgeoning career, Kristoffer said, “They picked me up from the streets. I was like a nobody.”
That might be exaggerating a bit, as Kristoffer moved from working in a video store, to trying to write screenplays, to the visual side by producing skateboard videos, music videos and, later, commercials. What makes this film so good, however, is his very unique view of life and a satirical sense of style that has been cultivated by viewing things like Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” as well as by his life experiences.
“It was one of the best scripts I’ve read, quite frankly, and I think it’s my best performance and probably the best movie I’ve ever made,” says Cage, who has appeared in more than 100 films. Cage actually called up A24 executives to convince them he was the right person to play this character.
Paul Matthews is completely unmemorable. In fact, Nicolas Cage, bearded and with a bald pate, looks more like F. Murray Abraham than Nicolas Cage. Cage has been doing some interesting films lately and having a career resurgence of sorts, with a much-praised performance in “Pig” as well as “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” and “Renfield.” This film will add to Cage’s upward trajectory, as it is enjoyable, hilarious, unique, and blackly comic, all while examining the entire idea of cancel culture and identity politics.
Borgli, when asked about the sudden fame that is thrust upon his main character and his own thoughts on fame, said, “You’re not allowed to be famous in Norway. Nobody acts like they’re better than anyone else.” [My Norwegian Grandfather Ole Monson would agree with that.]
Paul Matthews is initially quite happy to be temporarily famous. Everyone is seeing this nebbishy professor in their dreams, where he is generally doing nothing. In fact, his doing nothing is a point of discussion. The film opens with a sequence where Paul’s daughter Sophie (Lily Bird) is imperiled while sitting poolside. Paul does nothing, but continues raking leaves by their pool. (“You don’t do anything. You’re just there.”) After a particularly frightening incident where an intruder threatens Paul and Janet with a knife, the authorities comment, “It seems like you were pretty helpless in this situation.”
When his students start asking him “How does it feel to go viral?” Paul responds, “I actually enjoy my anonymity.”
DREAMS BECOME NIGHTMARES
Paul’s wife, Janet, played by Julianne Nicholson (“Mare of Easttown,” “Boardwalk Empire”) is concerned that Paul’s new-found fame might cause difficulty from the very beginning, but Paul—who has always talked about publishing in his field, but hasn’t written that book yet—thinks that perhaps his 15 minutes of fame will open doors for him with a publisher. At this point, the dreams that Paul has appeared in have been completely boring and un-memorable. He seems to be an inadequate loser, merely walking through the lives of the dreamers.
Unfortunately, the dreams go South Big-time. Some of the dreams become actual nightmares, with Paul murdering students and others. Some of the dreams become sexual. One of the most hilarious scenes occurs when Molly (Dylan Gelula of “Hacks,” “Shameless,” “Casual”) tries to get Paul to re-enact the dream sequence she had, which was sexual. She makes Paul stand in the corner and tells him, “Please don’t speak. Just do the dream.” The sex is awkward, weird and hilarious—(just like real sex). The director singled this out as one of his favorite scenes, but also mourned the loss of a scene set in Paris where a woman is affixed to a wall, surrounded by baguettes and being tortured. Said Borgli, “How do you tape her to the wall? We had to cut the scene for a variety of reasons.”
At some point, Paul is dubbed “Paultergeist” and a texted message says, “I kinda’ don’t like going to bed now.” It’s a big change for Paul’s weird ability to enter the subconscious of dreaming subjects; it will lead nowhere good.
THOUGHTS: MARKETING FAME
Enter Mary (Kate Berlant) and Trent (Michael Cena of “Barbie,” “Superbad” and “Life & Beth”). They have a company that holistically pairs brands with unconventional celebrities. Calling Paul “The most interesting person in the world” the duo tell him they can get him a 6-figure deal to sell the rights to his life. The interested corporation would like him to do “Sprite” ads.
Paul, who went to the interview with “Thoughts” thinking that his book might become a reality finally, says, “I don’t want my Wikipedia page to be about that.” He explains that he is an evolutionary biologist with a PhD. We have also heard his lecture about zebras and their stripes and how the purpose of the stripes is not to stand out, but to help each individual zebra stay hidden in the herd, so that predators do not attack the individual.
When Paul’s “fame” becomes negative fame, Thought attempts to pivot the deal they had been planning (Sprite or a tie-in with Obama) to less wholesome buyers, like “Rue Morgue Magazine.” It’s all about the Benjamins. “Thoughts” wants to cash in on Paul’s fame. Therefore, Paul’s book becomes very short. It is now named “Je Suis Un Cauchemar” (I Am A Nightmare).
NORIO MOVES IN
A company called Norio, whose CEO is Cousin Greg from “Succession” (Nicholas Braun), sees the potential in marketing a bracelet that will let companies intrude on people’s dreams to “pitch” various products. (Imagine the pharmaceutical companies that would leap at that opportunity!) They guarantee “no nightmares” and an entire industry springs up because of the phenomenon of Paul’s Andy Warhol 15 minutes of fame as a mass dream subject.
The implications are mind-boggling. The entire subject of someone who has done nothing being drummed from the corps is interesting to ponder. Cancel culture, as it is known, has come down recently on Russell Brand and, previously, on Kevin Spacey. True, those individuals may have stepped outside society’s boundaries. Perhaps they deserved the Amish shunning they received.
But there are innocent people who suffer such a fate, when they were NOT guilty of anything. I thought of the Atlanta bombing incident at the 1996 Olympics, which was the subject of the movie “Richard Jewell.” Richard Jewell became suspected of being the bomber after an FBI leak, when Jewell actually had helped avert the tragedy. I can think of three incidents in my own life, where I was “exiled-when-innnocent.” They still trouble me. No, there was never any retribution or any apologies for the injustice(s). I think many of you will be able to relate to the hapless Paul, who even goes on television to say, “I’m the biggest victim in the whole phenomenon.” He apologizes to the world for the brutal nightmares dreamers are unwittingly experiencing.
Wife Janet, hearing Paul on TV is not amused. She tells him it is “embarrassing to be married to you right now.” Having just seen another Norwegian film about being embarrassed by one’s significant other (“The Hypnotism,” also a comedy) I wondered, “What makes Norwegians so prone to dark thoughts and black comedy?” Maybe it’s the weather? Too late to ask my Norwegian grandfather or my Dutch grandmother.
Asked about happy endings during the Q&A, Writer/Director Borgli said, “In a way, I think happy endings make you less resilient to life’s ups and downs. We need to be more truthful. For me, comedy is the way to counteract life’s difficulties.”
He went on, “A version of you lives inside people’s heads, and they build a vision of you, based on that.” In interviews, Borgli has said, “I’m drawn to stubborn characters, who live and die by their own unattainable principles.” This is certainly true of Paul who says of his class (they all claim to have been traumatized and there is a hilarious scene where they are being treated for their trauma as a class): “Trauma is a joke. They need to grow up.” Paul also refuses to leave a restaurant when asked to do so and suffers a beating. He shows up at his daughter’s recital, which causes even more grief.
THE CAST & COSTUMES
A special nod should go to casting director Ellen Lewis, a Chicago native, who worked for 34 years with Martin Scorsese and has done a great job of putting the right actor in each part. Dylan Baker (“Happiness,” “Revolutionary Road,” “The Good Wife”) plays the host of the dinner party from hell. Tim Meadows, who spent 10 seasons on “Saturday Night Live” and has appeared on “Poker Face” has a small part that he makes the most of, especially when he lets Paul sleep in his basement, but the overhead light buzzes and cannot be shut off.*
Costumer Natalie Bronfman (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) who supervised the clothing and shoes that Paul wears also did a superb job. The David Byrne suit from “Stop Making Sense” was a huge hit with the audience!
This film premiered in Toronto. Make sure you mark it down when it streams or plays theaters. It is a comic jewel, but also has some great observations. To quote Paul Matthews, “I don’t want to be some culture war person.” The “Thoughts” people, still trying to make a buck from Paul’s bad luck, tell him they think they can get him on Tucker Carlson and that they love him in France.
Did you smile? You’ll laugh outright at this movie, and Nicolas Cage is great in it!
(*Totally unrelated aside: At a memorable Book Expo America conference in New York City that I attended, we stayed at the Hyatt hotel that is connected to Grand Central Station. It was a Trump hotel, originally, which seems about right. The light switches in the rooms were very weird. They were not normal light switches, but modernistic, and they did not work well. In fact, nothing in that room worked well. The exact thing depicted in the film happened to me at the Trump Commodore-cum- Hyatt (or whatever its name was.) I could not shut the lights off and had to sleep with a pillow over my head. Also, the water in the bathtub barely came out and never got hot. Later that night, I got a finger stuck in the pop machine, which was very painful. Maybe there is something special about Norwegians that sets us up for this stuff to seem funny later, because I did and do see the humor in that horrible hotel—although I never went back to another conference if it was being held in that location.)