Dream Scenario is a fascinating character study about an everyday person thrust in a highly unusual, surreal, and unnerving situation wrapped in a more obvious metaphor for the modern price of fame and notoriety. Writer-director Kristoffer Borgli’s narrative takes the much mythologized “15 minutes of fame” and “fine line between fame and infamy” adages to pleasingly comedic and modern extremes, but it requires an exceptional and perceptive leading performer to pull off something as heady as Dream Scenario with any degree of conviction. That’s precisely what Borgli has in actor Nicolas Cage, who provides some of the finest work of his career in service of elevating a script that needs someone capable of going the extra mile to sell ideas that remain around the periphery of the actual material.
Cage stars as Paul Matthews, a professor of evolutionary biology with a high pitched voice, fluctuating self esteem, and a wholly average physical appearance. Students can barely be asked to come to his lectures on a good day, he’s never published anything based on his research, and life with his wife (Julianne Nicholson) and daughters (Jessica Clement, Lily Bird) can be described as “fine enough.” But things start changing for Paul when people from his past and complete strangers begin coming up to him to say that he has been present in their dreams while they sleep. Paul basically makes cameo appearances in people’s dreams, not really doing much of anything (usually in nightmarish or embarrassing situations), but still taking up space in some way. This unexplainable phenomenon makes Paul an unlikely celebrity. Suddenly his classes are packed, he’s making the talk show rounds, a PR firm wants to help him strike while the iron is hot, and he might finally get a publisher to take a look at that book he’s been working on about ant behaviour. From there, the push and pull of fame begins to take a toll on Paul, and his presence in the dreams of others starts to take on darker connotations.
There’s no real explanation that Borgli (Sick of Myself) offers up to explain the high concept of Dream Scenario. It could be anything from astral projection to the Mandela Effect. But the how and why are hardly what Borgli wants to focus on. Dream Scenario is more of a cautionary tale about the nature of Memetics, and how the human mind can sometimes act as just another billboard upon which a new idea, concept, product, theory, or personality can become erected. It doesn’t matter so much that it’s Paul Matthews, because some cosmic reason beyond the human collective control has decided that he’s the hot new thing at the moment. And just like most flash in the pan trends, people start to look into the darker side of what it all could mean and choose to distance themselves from it. (You could call that “cancel culture,” as it is depicted in the film, but sometimes trends losing steam never reach that kind of extreme.)
While the idea that some random person – especially one as unexceptional appearing as Paul Matthews – could greatly impact daily existence by simply doing nothing at all in a low stakes part of everyday life is a playful one, and Borgli has a lot of fun with the dream sequences. They’re appropriately strange and unique to the individual experiencing them, outside of Paul’s glaringly obvious appearances; all of them open to a wide range of psychological interpretations. But even outside of the dream world, Borgli is employing some snappy editing and a fluid use of handheld cinematography to make things feel extra eerie and dreamlike. It’s not a film bogged down with fantastical visual effects, but Dream Scenario effectively makes every character’s life in this world feel more and more like a waking nightmare.
That ingenuity helps because many of the other cultural points being made in Dream Scenario are basic at best. People are initially happy to see the everyman get his moment in the sun, but they’re equally quick to sever all ties with him the moment that fame and omnipresence becomes troubling and problematic. Like many caught within the whirlwind of fame, Paul and his family have trouble navigating the new feelings that arise from being an intrinsic part of a culture that moves faster than it ever has before. Paul’s attempts to make good when things start going awry only digs bigger holes, and instead of genuinely making things better, he doubles down on his worst impulses out of equal parts fear and disdain for a world that gradually turns on him. All of these themes don’t need a high concept plot to explain them away, mostly because it’s a cycle of fame/infamy that plays out on grander and smaller scales every day, and has been explored in a variety of different ways ever since the birth of the media cycle. It seems modern, but Dream Scenario is tapping into a lot of basic facets of human life that existed way before the internet and prior to the concept of a meme even having a definition. While Borgli isn’t making any missteps on a technical level, he’s not taking many huge swings with a story that seems patently ridiculous on paper.
This leads to a story that has a lot of gaps where larger issues and implications surrounding Paul’s unique situation go unexplored in favour of keeping things accessible to a wider audience. But that’s also where the brilliance of Nicolas Cage comes in to help elevate Dream Scenario by making the viewer think about Paul in less than obvious terms. While Dream Scenario is about a person who suddenly becomes an overnight sensation, Cage’s performance constantly makes the viewer wonder if Paul wants to be famous or not. For years, Paul has coasted by on his tenured position and a place of domestic security, but this situation has unlocked a side of his personality that’s patently ungrateful and bitter at never receiving this sort of attention before now. He constantly misinterprets people’s curiosity as a sign of respect, which is dangerous in reality and played note perfectly by Cage. Over time, the viewer begins to wonder if Paul’s shift from banality to stardom makes him even more of a pushover than he was before, or if his darker, unspoken desire for attention he never got makes him outright unlikeable and sketchy. While Cage is best known for trademark displays of emotion, Dream Scenario allows the actor to go a bit more inward to flesh out the life of an uncomplicated man that has spiralled out of control. It’s a perfect pairing of an actor with material, and one where the casting choice pushes the overall film from good to great.
That is, until the ending, which makes sense in terms of talking about how even our dreams can be commodified to produce manufactured reactions, but is largely out of step with what the rest of Dream Scenario is trying to say about fame. It’s a major shift that’s meant to take things out on one final joke, but it’s a bit like watching a comedian trying out some new material at the end of set instead of going out strong. It’s not very funny or perceptive, and feels trucked in from another movie altogether. But it’s not enough to fully damage Dream Scenario and all the interesting things Cage and Borgli have accomplished. It might not haunt your dreams, but it will certainly leave the viewer with something to think about long into the night.
Dream Scenario opens in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Edmonton, Ottawa, Halifax, Winnipeg, and Calgary on Friday, November 24, 2023. It expands to theatres across Canada on Friday, December 1.
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