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There’s something refreshing about the plainly weird premise of “Dream Scenario”. Nicolas Cage plays a nondescript evolutionary biology professor named Paul Matthews, who suddenly appears in the dreams of his students, daughters, and people he does not know. He doesn't do anything in their recurring nighttime hallucinations of anxiety or horror, in which people sometimes float into the air or the world collapses. He more or less just strolls through the background in his sweater and glasses, sometimes flashing his dopey, pleasant smile. Paul soon becomes a phenomenon, and then a pariah when everyone’s dreams co-starring Paul become violent.
They probably won’t make movies with this budget within a few years, and some studios will never make such movies again, if they ever did. That’s where writer/director Kristoffer Borgli comes in, with the support of distribution A24 and producers Nicolas Cage and Ari Aster. Borgli is a Norwegian satirist who has long been interested in crude commercialism and absurd scenarios. Earlier this year, we saw the stateside release of his film “Sick of Myself,” about a woman who does the unthinkable and medically dangerous to her face to become famous. “Dream Scenario” is the inverse, in how it actualizes fame and not being able to control your image as if it were a miracle that suddenly happened and then trapped you. Both films hardly show these scenarios playing out on social media, but they don't need to. The groupthink is the bubble in which this movie takes place.
Nicolas Cage is excellent in a strange course of events in which he is not intentionally a freak (his storied cinematic superpower) but is stuck being seen as one. Such an iconic normie needs a star in the role, and Cage is a great fit—he hasn’t been like this since he played two Kaufman brothers in Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation.” In the last few years, his career choices have welcomed meta layers, but he has made them fit his passions instead of the other way around. In his most spirited roles, he cares most about what makes someone so weird, and in this case, it’s about Paul’s hunching, stuttering, and nasal presence. Cage brings such an essential innocence to this role, which is initially very funny about how bland he is—he’s so good at cracking unfunny jokes—and later, how clueless he is as a patsy for the culture wars. Cage plays the part as if this were simply a biopic about a professor who wants to be known one day for writing a book about ants.
Borgli’s script, which is inspired by memes, the rush of going viral, and celebrity, is funny when pitching the original problem. There are a lot of laughs when Paul, flattered by the attention, says things like, “Have you been dreaming about me?”. But the specific choice to not explore why this is happening, or its worldwide effect, or why everyone’s dreams suddenly become violent, becomes unfulfilling. It’s telling how this movie has some punchy awkward moments (including a punchline with concurrent bodily functions), but not a singular great scene. Cage’s sincere work can only do so much as Paul flails through a downfall that he has no clue how to reverse. When he makes a crying video begging for empathy, as influencers are known to do, it just makes everything much worse, but the story is not better.
“Dream Scenario” gets many cringing laughs, and yet its humor—easy shots at vapid capitalist-pawn influencers, cancel culture, Tucker Carlson, and other culture wars Mad Libs—is mostly about the cheap comic thrill of getting the reference. As with Borgli’s first feature, about a powerful energy drink company called “Drib,” his way of satire is not much about what a reference means but what it is standing in for. With “Dream Scenario,” the awkwardness is stronger and gets far more laughs than the story containing it. In the process, compelling characters played by the likes of Michael Cera and Dylan Gelula are left as sketches. The biggest loss from this slightness is Julianne Nicholson as Paul’s wife, Janet. She's maybe the last person to take Paul seriously because she knows him beyond the fantasies or nightmares he can bring.
The sleepy visions of "Dream Scenario" play out like disquieting slapstick, adding to Borgli's unsettling filmmaking. With a human touch from cinematographer Benjamin Loeb's many profile shots at a low angle (and a nice and tangible film stock), the editing fashions a strange tone that’s more horrified than horror. Multiple jarring cuts can disrupt an otherwise calm moment, and many scenes, some with elements of danger, start with the uncertainty of whether we're in a dream. Borgli may be too lost in the haziness of dreams to make a great point, but he always keeps us on our toes.
“Dream Scenario” is a riff on the real-life weird case of “This Man,” a sketch that has inspired a website called “Ever Dream This Man?” Thousands of people around the world, according to the website, have claimed to. The venue helps people connect their dreams, which features a face that looks pretty ordinary and very well could appear in your dreams the longer you stare at him. Like a movie star. Borgli takes the concept of an eponymous figure—a possible proof of collective unconsciousness, dream surfing, or even the proof of God—and places it on the screen presence of Cage, a real phenomenon we have all memed about at one point or another.
In the end, “Dream Scenario” is what it criticizes, but with no great statement or great pivotal scene, just intriguing, oddball amusement. The movie isn’t just about memes; it is a meme. Which is part of the point, but not the most memorable one "Dream Scenario" could make.
Now playing in theaters.
Nicolas Cage as Paul Matthews
Julianne Nicholson as Janet Matthews
Dylan Baker as Richard
Michael Cera as Trent
Tim Meadows as Brett
Lily Bird as Sophie Matthews
Jessica Clement as Hannah Matthews
Nicholas Braun as Brian Berg
Jennifer Wigmore as Kayla
Kate Berlant as Mary
Dylan Gelula as Molly
David Klein as Andy
Ben Caldwell as Eli