Producers: Lars Knudsen, Ari Aster, Tyler Campellone, Jacob Jaffke and Nicolas Cage    Director: Kristoffer Borgli   Screenplay: Kristoffer Borgli   Cast: Nicolas Cage, Julianne Nicholson, Michael Cera, Tim Meadows, Dylan Gelula, Dylan Baker, Kate Berlant, Star Slade, Joshua Richards, Noah Centineo, Lily Bird, Jessica Clement, Marne McPhail Diamond, Paula Boudreau, David Klein, Cara Volchoff, Nicholas Braun, Amber Midthunder and Lily Gao   Distributor: A24

Grade: B

The Nicolas Cage renaissance continues with Kristoffer Borgli’s second feature, an edgy satire about modern celebrity that, as happens so often nowadays, stumbles toward the close but offers so much that’s good along the way that you forgive its third-act lapses.  The good certainly includes Cage’s witty performance as Paul Matthews, a professor of biology at an obscure college who finds himself trapped in an inexplicable phenomenon.  The actor still often lavishes his talent for over-the-top mania on meritless stuff—see the recent “Sympathy for the Devil,” or “Renfield”—but when working from a challenging script (“Pig,” “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” and now this), he can remind you that it’s always a mistake to dismiss him as a one-trick pony.

Paul is a schlubby guy, balding and bespectacled, with a high-pitched, whiny voice and an eccentric manner, who finds it hard to connect with the students in his evolutionary biology class.  He’s not a very productive scholar either, yet is incensed when he learns that Sheila (Paula Boudreau), a former colleague, is at point of publishing on ant intelligence, a subject he’d once worked on.  Over lunch she points out that there’s a difference between having an idea and actually researching it.

Things are also sometimes tense at home, where his wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson) and daughters Sophie (Lily Bird) and Hannah (Jessica Clement) are occasionally taken aback by his arbitrary rules, and he’s irritated by their not-always-respectful attitude.  But his domestic life, like his professional one, hardly seems in any real danger.

Everything unravels, though, when Paul begins appearing in people’s dreams.  It doesn’t seem all that unusual when his daughter reports that she dreamed about his watching her float away, though it bothers him that she reports he did nothing to rescue her.  But when Claire (Marnie McPhail Diamond), an old acquaintance, bumps into him and Janet and remarks that he’s been appearing in her dreams too, he’s taken aback.  And after Claire writes about it in her blog, scads of folks—many perfect strangers—report that he’s shown up in their dreams as well—always a passive observer.  It turns out that many of his students have had similar experiences, and “dream Paul” has never intervened in their narratives, even when the dreamer was in serious danger and in need of help.

As reports of such “sightings” flood social media, Paul gains a degree of notoriety that has a double-edged result.  On the one hand, his home is invaded by a disturbed man with murderous intent.  On the other, he’s contacted by a marketing firm that he hopes could help in getting a book he hopes to write published.  Unfortunately the outfit, headed by high-strung Trent (Michael Cera) and Mary (Kate Berlant), is only interested in using him as a sort of dream influencer, hawking products like Sprite in people’s sleep.  And Molly (Dylan Gelula), their young assistant, confides that in her dreams, he’s not passive at all, but sexually committed.  When she prods him to repeat the dream in waking mode, the outcome is humiliating.

It quickly gets worse.  People report that in their dreams Paul has become menacing and violent, and even a colleague like Richard (Dylan Baker) feels compelled to break off a dinner with Paul and Janet after his wife has an uncomfortable dream about him.  His students abandon his class after they experience bad encounters, and an attempted mediation session with a counselor (Cara Volchoff)—an episode that’s especially cringe-inducing—only makes matters worse.  Brett (Tim Meadows), the college dean, decides to cancel Paul’s classes, even if he’s otherwise solicitous, even letting Paul stay in his basement during a split with Janet (not on the couch upstairs—his wife wouldn’t feel safe).  And Paul gets into a fight with a fellow restaurant patron who asks him to leave because he’s making other diners feel uncomfortable just by being there.

Obviously the main target here is the downside of viral fame that can quickly turn from fascination to loathing, as well as the cancel culture backlash that can follow.  But the reaction against Paul also points to what lies behind cancel culture—the pervasive fear of people nowadays that they, or their children, should be protected against anything they might find emotionally unsettling–what might be called the snowflake effect.  When you add the personal element that Cage brings to the mix with his scalding portrait of Matthews—a guy who’s outwardly kind of drab but inwardly a rather obnoxious jerk lacking in self-awareness—the brew is satisfying, especially since Borgli and his confederates—cinematographer Benjamin Loeb, production designer Zosia Mackenzie and costumer Natalie Bronfman—are able to maintain a sense of grubby normalcy in even the dream sequences, which only gradually grow more outlandish and surrealistic as the plot progresses.  Borgli’s editing and Owen Pallett’s score help to maintain the subtly unnerving mood through the film’s first hour well, as do the uniformly fine performances of the actors supporting Cage, who bring only a trace of archness to their turns, though some—like Cera—are understandably given greater leeway.  Nicholson’s work is especially notable, but some of the smaller contributions, like Gelula’s and Volchoff’s, are also memorable.

To be sure, things go somewhat awry in the home stretch, where Borgli takes matters into increasingly bizarre territory, especially in a subplot about a form of dream technology invented by a bearded techie (Nicholas Berg) that can actually insert influencers into people’s dreams for commercial purposes—rather like a modernist take on the subliminal insert concerns that ruffled people’s fears some decades ago, bolstered by current worries about the potential impact of AI.  And having Paul use the device to enter Janet’s dreams, wearing an oversized David Byrne-Talking Heads-like suit, in a vain attempt to romance the wife who’s left him, comes across as gilding the lily.

Still, for the most part this is a satisfyingly imaginative satire, showing the sort of promise that a strange film like “Donnie Darko” did years ago.  Let’s hope that he fulfills his potential better than its writer-director Richard Kelly has.