An Unforgettable Nicolas Cage Invades Everyone’s Sleep in ‘Dream Scenario,’ a Wildly Original Take On Our Obsession With Fame
The ultimate aim of celebrity, especially in the social media age, is similar to the goals of advertising. They seek to tattoo themselves into your brain. To be famous means countless people are thinking about you all the time. In “Dream Scenario” Nicolas Cage delivers one of his best performances as a man who becomes a walking nightmare of fulfilled wishes for attention. Director Kristoffer Borgli makes his career breakthrough with an idea that combines surrealism with a biting character study that doubles as stinging social commentary. His inventive screenplay, unnerving and funny, challenges the very notion of fame. Why do we seek it? Who deserves it? Cage is the center, giving life to the idea even when it comes close to derailing.
Cage is Paul Matthews, a tenured professor of biology at one of those colleges nestled in autumnal American suburbia. He lives in a great house with wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson) and daughters Hannah (Jessica Clement) and Sophie (Lily Bird). But the reserved Paul harbors seething rage over not being published. A former classmate is even finding fame in their field by publishing a book with ideas suspiciously close to his own. Then, Paul begins to notice strangers in public or acquaintances beginning to stare at him, some in shock. Paul soon discovers this is because he’s been appearing in their dreams. Through some inexplicable alignment, he’s appearing in the dreams of people he knows and strangers, including his own students. At first he seems to be a solitary figure who simply wanders or stares as events happen to the dreamer. Instant fame on the internet follows with the world fascinated by Paul’s sudden, mysterious ability. His ego gets boosted and a PR firm tries to shape his image. But when the dreams begin to take darker turns, Paul discovers fame can also be a curse.
Borgli chooses to dissect modern fame with an excellent choice in character. Paul is the kind of person who wishes they were notable despite lacking charisma, likability or even looks. He’s dull and the increasing feeling of being left behind is also threatening to make him petty. But this is the social media age, where the illusion is that anyone from anywhere can become a celebrity through enough clicks or that ever so coveted video that goes viral. Paul is determined to be recognized for his research on ants. Instead, he gains recognition over doing nothing. In dream sequences that range from breezy to hilariously wild, a student may see Paul casually wandering around a campus, being demolished by some cataclysm, or simply observing someone’s activities from a corner. Borgli keeps the surreal imagery measured by giving such sequences the feel of real, hazy mental landscapes we wake up from vaguely remembering. One of the film’s producers is director Ari Aster, also a director obsessed with the hallucinatory.
All of it orbits around Nicolas Cage, an actor who has tasted Hollywood glory and post-fame scrutiny. Lately his career has been undergoing a much-delayed renaissance. Often cited for his manic performances, he turns Paul into a walking nervous wreck similar to his stressed screenwriter in “Adaptation.” When his students now eagerly want to take selfies with him and share his cameos in their dreams, it’s like a warm embrace the outside world has never given the secluded academic. Advertising guru Trent (Michael Cera) wants to start plotting marketing campaigns and appearances with Barack Obama. Paul just wants to get his book on ants published. He doesn’t realize the celebrity industry quickly becomes its own beast. Extra-marital sex can also be an added perk. When Paul nearly cheats with a young member of Trent’s team, who reveals the erotic nature of her own dreams with the professor, the resulting premature ejaculation is pitifully, awkwardly brilliant. At least fame grants him finally an invitation to the dinners thrown by Richard (Dylan Baker), another academic who behaves like social royalty for no clear reason other than elitism for its own sake.
Fame can have its stages and eventually, Paul’s dream becomes a nightmare when his appearance in other people’s REM state takes on darker, even threatening attitudes. Here is where the movie also finds its weaker section because Borgli sticks to a post-modern form of filmmaking very common in current, experimental arthouse projects where the symbols overtake clear meaning. Having conjured a great idea, Borgli never finds a way to actually explain its rules. How did Paul get into everyone’s dreams? Is the sudden dark turn of events a reflection of Paul’s truer inner self? Because Cage is so good and the clearer ideas so effective, the bigger holes can mostly be looked over. Suddenly, he becomes a target of cancel culture. Yesterday’s fad becomes today’s discarded meme. Little time is given for the professor to try and make sense of it with the public. Once the mood changes it’s all over.
“Dream Scenario” begins to get wobbly by the end, yet it’s still bolder and edgier than most of what’s premiering this month. Cage should seriously be considered come voting time for award nominations. He could have easily gone off the wall with this role and instead makes us care for Paul like another clueless human devoured by our modern obsessions. There’s great sci-fi satire involving influencers in the near future being able to literally enter your mind in order to sell a product. Paul didn’t have to sell anything. He accidentally stepped into becoming known by everyone. You could easily call this a cringe comedy. Cringe is the point and even a conversation with department head Brett (Tim Meadows) will make any experienced academic grind their teeth. We crave the validation of fame and importance in a time where everyone can make a profile and spread their image to the world. Nicolas Cage’s eventual yelps of pain are a brilliantly-performed reminder that infamy without reason or meaning is a worse fate than only being known at home.
“Dream Scenario” releases Nov. 10 in select theaters and expands Nov. 22 in theaters nationwide.