Dream Scenario

Nicolas Cage turns in a dream performance in this wonderfully surreal and biting satire about a college professor unwittingly haunting the world's slumbers to viral fame.
Sarah Ward
December 22, 2023


Gushing about Paddington movies, channelling Elvis, screaming about being a vampire, swooning over Cher, kidnapping babies, fighting cults, battling demonic animatronics, driving ambulances, flying with convicts, swapping faces, avenging pet pigs and milking alpacas, Nicolas Cage has gotten himself lodged in many a moviegoer's brain before. Dream Scenario takes that idea to the next level, not with the screen's most-inimitable star as himself — this isn't The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent — but in a film that works as well as it does, and as sharply, because he's its irreplaceable lead. Although writer/director Kristoffer Borgli didn't write his third feature (after DRIB and Sick of Myself) with Cage in mind, there's pure magic in matching his tale of pop-culture virality, fame and its costs to the man born Nicolas Kim Coppola. Who else could play someone so ubiquitous in the collective consciousness that everyone knows him, has deep-seated feelings and opinions about him, and can't stop thinking about him? Albeit for different reasons, it as much a stroke of genius as enlisting Being John Malkovich's namesake. 

Dream Scenario wears its comparisons to Spike Jonze (Beastie Boys Story) and Charlie Kaufman's (I'm Thinking of Ending Things) masterpiece better than anything else between 1999 and now, other than their subsequent collaboration Adaptation — as starring none other than Cage — and the Kaufman-penned, Michel Gondry (Kidding)-helmed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. David Lynch (Cage's Wild at Heart director) and Ari Aster also come to mind while watching Borgli's film, which blends the surreal and satirical, and also spins a nightmare where dread paints every frame. Aster produces, lending a hand on a movie that pairs well with his own Beau Is Afraid, aka another flick where a schlubby, awkward and unhappy middle-aged man has his life upended in no small part thanks to his own anxiety. Dream Scenario isn't attempting to ape its predecessors, or Borgli's own Sick of Myself, another musing on celebrity, attention and the fact that almost everything about 21st-century existence has become a performance. Rather, the Norwegian filmmaker's latest plays like its title suggests: the product of slumbering while having all of the above swirling, twirling and dancing in your synapses — and with Cage always lurking, of course.

The Renfield actor loiters as the bulk of Dream Scenario's characters get some shuteye, too, skulking on the edge of nocturnal reveries conjured up by their sleeping subconscious. But for the folks within Borgli's movie, they're sharing their headspace with an average biology professor that no one outside of his own university has initially heard of. Even then, his students and colleagues barely think twice about him. One former classmate-turned-fellow academic (Paula Boudreau, Take Me Back for Christmas) has ripped off his research for her book without worrying about any repercussions. When Dream Scenario opens inside the napping mind of Paul's teenage daughter Sophie (Lily Bird, The Northman), she's witnessing him sweep up leaves, then do nothing when items fall from the sky and she flies into the air. In a reaction that the feature makes plain would be shared by his other high-schooler daughter Hannah (Jessica Clement, Gen V), plus his wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson, Weird: The Al Yankovic Story), she believes it's strange enough to tell him about — and that it keeps recurring — but isn't losing sleep over why he's so passive.

Cage plays Paul Matthews, who far more people than just one of his children is spotting when they close their peepers. Soon, it's harder to find someone who isn't dreaming about him among his pupils, acquaintances, exes, his city, America and globally. A past love (Marnie McPhail Diamond, Orphan Black: Echoes) pens an article about the phenomenon, which thrusts Paul to worldwide attention in everyone's waking hours as well. And there is attention, springing from the internet, the news, a lofty old pal (Dylan Baker, Hunters) who never normally invites him to his exclusive dinner parties, and social-media marketers Trent (Michael Cera, Scott Pilgrim Takes Off) and Mary (Kate Berlant, The Other Two). With their assistant Molly (Dylan Gelula, Loot), the latter duo endeavour to capitalise upon Paul's yearning to get published by pitching Sprite campaigns and dangling Barack Obama's purported interest. The one largely non-plussed party: Janet, who isn't seeing him as she snoozes, but Paul tries to make wish that she was (and in a Stop Making Sense-style oversized suit).

That Paul's pilfered work focuses on "antelligence", his term for creatures arranging themselves into communities, is a telling early detail in Dream Scenario. So is how much Janet's apathy about Paul suddenly being everywhere as the planet kips — pottering rather than engaging — differs from the general response. And, obviously, there's the entire gag about someone who stands out so scarcely when they're awake that they're only given any notice for being an overnight bystander who literally does nothing. As it digs into crowd behaviour, group think, herd reactions, psychological contagion and social conformity, Dream Scenario is rarely subtle, nor is Borgli trying to be. Eschewing nuance doesn't make the picture any less shrewd and playful, however, including when it starts embracing the blatant in the heartiest of ways after Paul's luck twists. First, his unwitting A Nightmare on Elm Street experience turns terrifying for those inflicted with the dream epidemic, making him an aggressor in their mind's eye. Then, getting to the detail that sparked the film's screenplay, he becomes the new poster child for cancel culture.

In a world rightly obsessed with Cage across his 100-plus on-screen credits, no one has likely thought that overlooking the Leaving Las Vegas Oscar-winner — and Adaptation Oscar-nominee — would, should or could happen. That's another of Dream Scenario's stellar jokes, alongside evidence of why this wouldn't be the movie it is without him. No one can ever ignore Cage, especially in one of his finest comic performances as someone so regularly disregarded, then made an icon and later a pariah. In fact, his portrayal of Paul is so rich because he brings such empathy and complexity to a neurotic man who loses control over reality's sense of who he is and can't do anything about it. It's not hard to expect that the much-memed Cage might relate; naming an actor whose go-for-broke commitment is so feverishly stripped of its context by the online masses, making him famous for being Nic Cage over any one project or his talent, is impossible.

Cage is visibly having fun as well, as is the entire movie around him. Borgli isn't skewering wokeness, supporting the cancelled or decrying the validity of society deeming some behaviours unacceptable; instead, he's parodying the irrationality of chasing validation through digital exposure and its spread, the narcissism that fuels that urge and beams just as brightly in internet compliance, and the commodification and performativeness of just about everything in 2020s-era life. As shot by Mandy cinematographer Ben Loeb, edited by the filmmaker himself and featuring Cage as a producer — he's that all-in — Dream Scenario is at its best when it's showing rather than telling, though. When its hallucinatory dream sequences prove eerie and unsettling in their mundanity and horrors alike, it draws its audience into a realm where anything can happen, yet the worst usually does in both routine and wild ways. That's when Dream Scenario is exactly what everyone should want in their heads — with Cage, naturally.


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