‘The Surfer’ Review: Nicolas Cage Goes Full Cage in a Trippy Slapdash Comic Nightmare

Nicolas Cage plays the title character of “The Surfer,” but it’s not until the film’s final minute that he climbs onto a surfboard. The movie, while set on a muscle beach in Australia, isn’t about surfing. It’s about male anxiety, male power, male midlife crisis, male rituals of pain and dominance, and how much theater Nicolas Cage can wring out of all of that. “The Surfer” premiered last night at a Cannes midnight show, and that’s smart programming, because it really is a midnight movie — the kind of trippy slapdash comic nightmare where the only way to watch it is to sit back and “go with it.”

Cage makes that easy to do. The film has been designed as a bad-trip psychodrama that’s also a high-camp Nicolas Cage freak-out. I only wish that “The Surfer,” as directed by Lorcan Finnegan and written by Thomas Martin, had the filmmaking chops to match its what-is-reality? jokiness. The film is trying for something, but it’s also sketchy in the extreme.

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This is the sort of twisty-headed puzzle movie where you just know the title character is going to be listed in the credits as…The Surfer. (No name given.) For a while, though, Cage seems to play him as a perfectly ordinary, if desperate, finance dude in a morose beard and rumpled light-gray suit. He shows up at Luna Bay in his Lexus, with his teenage son (Finn Little) in tow, so that the two can go surfing. (He’s separated from his wife, but dreams they’ll get back together.) Cage, we learn, wants to buy a home above the beach — and, in fact, it’s the house he grew up until he was 15. But then his father died, and his mother took him to live in California. (That’s why he seems, jarringly, to be a total American-dweeb foreigner to Australia.) Now, he thinks, if he can just get his hands on that house (for $1.6 million), everything will go back to being The Way It Was.

From the start, that backward-glancing fantasy is the tip-off that Cage’s character is living in a rather pathetic dream world. But as the movie goes on, the cringiness of his neurotic nostalgia starts to unravel into an actual dream world. “The Surfer” is one of those comedies of masochism where everything, by cosmic design, goes wrong for the protagonist, as if everyone were in on a conspiracy against him — the genre of “What About Bob?” and “Neighbors” and Oliver Stone’s “U-Turn,” a form that stretches back to “Green Acres.”

First Cage’s deal to buy his house starts to go south, as he’s outbid by an all-cash offer. (Can he find an extra hundred grand?) On the beach, although it’s a public one, the local “bay boys” are surfer-jock “Straw Dogs” bullies who won’t let him surf, hitting him with the rule that if you “don’t live here, don’t surf here.” He appeals to a local cop (Justin Rosniak), who just taunts him like one of the bay boys. When they steal his surfboard, which is decorated with the word “Sanctuary,” and put it over the door of their surf hut, he wants it back — but they claim the board has been up there for seven years. When his phone runs out of juice, he can’t even buy a coffee, and instead of floating him one the bloke at the coffee stand treats him like a deadbeat.

We can see that he’s the victim of Aussie macho terror. But it’s around this point that we start to ask: Is he also losing his grip? Slipping into another reality? After he’s beaten up and bloodied, his car trashed and stolen, he starts skulking around like a bum. Is the abandoned red jalopy he starts crashing in his actual car? Could the cranky old bum (Nicholas Cassim) who keeps hanging around be…the Cage character?

Cage has what I would rate as a medium-grade Nicolas Cage field day sinking into deeper and deeper levels of dishevelment, degradation, and distorted anger. He seethes and grimaces. He mopes and pleads. He fills his empty bottle with icky orange water from a beach bathroom faucet and tries to drink it. He flirts with eating a dead rat, then uses it as a weapon. (The money-shot line of the movie: “Eat the rat!”) And then there’s what looked, to me, like it could be a Cage-eats-a-real-bug-in-“Vampire’s-Kiss” moment. To feed himself, he finds a nest of small eggs and breaks them open, pouring the raw yolks into his mouth. The incipient stoned surrealism is reinforced by token bits of hallucinatory imagery, mostly shots of lizards and porcupines and aerial screensaver views of aqua waves.

Is there a point? There actually is. “The Surfer,” in its threadbare gonzo way, is an allegory — of the new money, and of the new tribal rites of retro masculinity. That public beach is walled off from Cage because the surf-bum bullies are trust-fund kids shielding their private community. Cage, by contrast, is on the verge of losing his family, his home, his past, and his center of gravity as a man. The main bay boy, an athletic middle-aged dude named Scally (Julian McMahon), turns out to be the head of a local men’s cult where the mantra is, “You can’t surf if you don’t suffer.” What this means is that the Cage character has to hit bottom to purge himself, to come out the other side of his pain and his yuppie dream.

Or something. “The Surfer” is amusing to a point, but it has an overly broad and cursory quality that, I think, will limit its appeal in the real world. It’s not that I don’t take the promise of Nicolas Cage’s artful overacting seriously. It’s that I take it just seriously enough not to want to see it come out only at midnight.

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