Moviegoers this weekend have options for not one but two strange surreal and darkly funny dramatic comedies.
This is one of the most interesting box office weekends in some time, especially with some very strong offerings from Japan – Godzilla Minus One expanding its hugely successful run, and Hayao Miyazaki’s final opus, The Boy and The Heron making its opening.
But that’s not the only interesting pairing going on this weekend. We’ve also got dueling surreal comedies – both American productions, directed by European filmmakers, featuring characters who are university biologists, and putting familiar A-list stars in some of the most challenging and impressive acting roles of their careers.
From Norwegian filmmaker Kristoffer Borgli, A24’s Dream Scenario features Nicolas Cage in an absurd “dream scenario” that soon becomes a nightmare.
Paul Matthews is for all intents and purposes a perfectly normal and unassuming university professor. Like anyone, he has his professional challenges and a family life with its ups and downs. Basic life stuff.
Not at all a particularly interesting person, and perhaps even a bit of a schmuck, Paul suddenly becomes the most interesting person in the world when the internet uncovers a phenomenon: he’s a recurring character in the dreams of millions of people around the world, who are shocked to discover he actually exists.
What’s initially something of a personal windfall for Paul, who innately craves attention and approval, gradually becomes a nightmare as he grapples with the dark side of fame, pressures on his family, and the betrayal of being universally loved until he’s not, as a world that’s initially fascinated with his inexplicable presence becomes increasingly horrified at his intrusion.
Nicolas Cage gets to flex his range mightily. Internally, Paul is a human with a unique expertise, a family, and hopes and aspirations. But to most, he’s just some guy, an NPC in a larger world. Paul’s natural demeanor is milktoasty, but as his Kafka-esue nightmare scenario of sudden fame, bad decisions, and betrayals takes its toll, we see other sides of his personality emerge.
Despite its grim subject matter, the films is genuinely kind of delightful. There’s a lot of dark humor at Paul’s expense as he’s a sad-sack who gets kicked around and finds himself in absurd and uncomfortable situations. Yet we’re also pretty sympathetic to his plight even as he uncovers new ways to makes things worse for himself.
Cage is, to a degree greater than most, an actor who’s had some dizzying ups and downs. His larger-than-life acting has been both praised and reviled, he’s had highly publicized debt tax debts with the IRS, and he’s been one of the most prevalent involuntary subjects of internet memeification. It really is interesting to think of what experience Cage brings to the table on a personal level, which perhaps no one else could.
The film’s many dream sequences, where we see the perspectives of various characters as “Paul” enters their dreams, often behaving in absurd and non-sequitur fashion as dream logic goes, are often hilarious and always interesting, and the film’s final moments make surprisingly poignant impression.
Opening this weekend, Poor Things is the latest from Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, whose deeply polarizing output over the last few years – including The Lobster, The Favorite, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, has been both critically acclaimed and oft reviled.
Polarizing can be a good thing; it means you’re doing at least one thing right: challenging your viewers to have a response.
The film initially begins from male perspectives, focused on respected but bizarre experimental biologist and instructor Dr. Baxter (Willem Dafoe) and his younger protege, Max (Ramy Youssef). Max becomes the heavily scarred doctor’s helper in his newest and most daring experiment: Bella (Emma Stone), a woman whom the doctor returned to life after discovering her freshly drowned corpse, by means which will later be made known.
Bella is physically an adult, but her mind reverted to that of a toddler, and Baxter has taken on a fatherly role in her second upbringing. She is shielded from the world but becomes the obsession of hedonistic scoundrel Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) who discovers her existence and, consumed with lust and the idea of being able to control a childlike woman for his sexual fulfillment, whisks her away on his foreign travels.
And thus begins the bizarre and eventually triumphant journey of Bella Baxter into womanhood. Bella’s venture into the world changes her in a way that her sheltered life never could, but what’s great about her story is that she rises to the occasion and responds to every challenge thrown at her. Because of her unique mind and upbringing, she’s undaunted by social mores or prejudices, and generally just playing life by her own rules, quickly outgrowing Wedderburn and becoming an independent woman, and eventually returning home an almost different person than the girl who left.
Stylistically, the film is both gorgeous and grotesque, utilizing through different cinematographic and musical techniques to evolve the story along with the character, initially harsh and misanthropic with a jarring score and fisheye lenses. As Bella develops, so too does the film’s presentation. I was initially very put off by the film’s earlier sequences and disturbing and violent imagery, but the movie spends the rest of its tale moving the needle back in the other direction and developing Bella to a character to cheer for: intelligent, brave, and resourceful.
Regardless of where you might land with the film’s narrative or extreme choices (Lanthimos is definitely a polarizing filmmaker and his work can be difficult or annoying to watch), it’s a sumptuous work of artistic achievement with incredible steampunk-inspired production design, lavish sets, stunning cinematography, and a unique and deliberate score – which I kind of hated, but it’s definitely doing exactly what it set out to do.
I’m not as enamored with the film as many of my colleagues but it’s one which I’ve somewhat come around to; initially repulsed by its grotesquery and extreme tendencies, but somewhat won over by the agency of its unflappable protagonist and its feminist attitude of resisting male control, indelible artistry, and winsome conclusion.