Nicolas Cage’s performance in Dream Scenario is a welcomed revelation for the actor who has been the perennial subject of memes since time immemorial. As of lately, Cage’s dedication to embracing the meme has led to mildly amusing but largely unmoving star-vehicles like The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent and this year’s The Retirement Plan. These films largely forgot that while Cage’s manic tendencies had made him a beloved cult figure, it was his more understated performances that make him a great actor (see Spike Jonze’s Adaptation).
In Dream Scenario, Cage is stuck playing Paul Matthews, a hopelessly unremarkable ethology professor, as harmless as he is boring — and that’s where Cage shines the brightest.
The film begins with Paul’s frustration about his grad school classmate (Paul Boudreau) readying to publish a paper based on an idea he shared with her three years ago, without giving him credit. That’s the late motif of Paul’s life. He’s arrived at his middle age with almost nothing at all to show for it. While on a date night with his wife, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), Pau runs into an old flame (Marnie McPhail), who claims that she’s been seeing him in her dreams. When he gives her permission to blog about the dreams she’s been having, many of Paul’s students start reported that they’ve seen him in their dreams. In their dreams, Paul doesn’t do anything in their recurring nightmares. Sometimes people float into thin air, or people freeze in fear. Paul mostly just strolls in the background with his academia garb and goofy smile plastered on his face.
Of course, there’s no scientific explanation for this whatsoever. Like all things these days, Paul’s appearance in thousands of people’s dreams becomes fodder for morning talk shows, social media, and more. At first, Paul enjoys the newfound attention, as flattered as he is baffled by the whole ordeal. He even takes a meeting with a PR firm in order to steer him in the direction of his next big move. It’s there he meets Molly (Dylan Gelula, Shithouse), an assistant who confesses to Paul that she’s been having erotic dreams about him. This leads to one of the most profoundly awkward ye uproariously funny sequences in any movie this year. It almost plays like a Curb Your Enthusiasm bit to the finest degree.
As times goes on, people’s dreams of Paul start morphing into nightmares, where he starts attacking or even raping his subjects. His students stop showing up to class because the very sight of him is triggering. He starts finding himself unwelcome in public, be it a restaurant or (heartbreakingly) his daughter’s recital.
Dream Scenario is written and directed by Norwegian filmmaker Kristoffer Borgli. whose previous film, Sick of Myself, revolved around a woman who began taking a dangerous club drug and eventually resorted to medical mutilation in order to become famous. It was a commentary on the sad state of our society once suggested by Brad Paisley of all folks that doing the most outrageous things is the quickest way to achieve any kind of fame in this world. Conversely, Dream Scenario examines a different branch off that same tree. It looks at an unassuming, passive soul who is suddenly thrust into the national spotlight and has no way of controlling his image. Paul’s reputation, let alone presence, plummets faster than a political candidate, and the ironic part is he himself hasn’t done anything wrong.
Nicolas Cage is completely comfortable, even sensational at times, as this amiable nobody-turned-somebody. Underscoring her own “plain Jane” personality is Julianne Nicholson as his dutiful wife, whose funniest scene comes when Janet tells Paul that she found him at his sexiest when he was dressed like Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. Although firmly relegated to the role of supporting characters, Paul and Janet’s children (Lily Bird and Jessica Clement) are at the center of some enjoyable deadpan comedy as well.
Dream Scenario‘s final 15 minutes descends into something of a montage that tries to say a little something about cancel culture, a little something about influencers (or, in this case, “dream-fluencers”), and also try to leave Paul’s story on an ambiguous and interpretive note. In doing so, it becomes one of those movies that tries to end three or four times before it actually does, and the message does get bobbled in the process. There’s still enough substance and wit to call this one of the most fiercely original movies of the year, the type that might get harder and harder to find in subsequent years.
NOTE: Dream Scenario is now playing exclusively in theaters.
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Julianne Nicholson, Michael Cera, Tim Meadows, Dylan Gelula, Lily Bird, and Jessica Clement. Directed by: Kristoffer Borgli.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!