This review was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film being covered here wouldn’t exist.When we first meet Nicolas Cage’s entirely forgettable Paul Matthews in Dream Scenario, it’s—as the title implies—in a dream. His daughter Sophie (Lily Bird) has had a dream where random items are falling from the sky before she starts floating away. But standing there as his daughter flies away is Paul Matthews, sweeping up leaves by the pool, without hardly a reaction. As more people reveal that they’ve also had dreams about Paul, he’s similarly inert, an unnecessary addition to the hysteria of the dream. “Why am I always just standing there?,” Paul asks, and as we learn more about him, it seems as though he’s remained in this state of standstill in his real life for years.
Dream Scenario writer-director Kristoffer Borgli continues his fascination with the depths of fame and how we view ourselves, which he began with his debut DRIB and built upon with Sick of Myself from earlier this year, through the story of Paul Matthews. Paul has been a meek, stagnant figure in his life, an evolutionary biologist professor desperate to get published—despite not writing anything—and sort of nothing to everyone who meets him. But then, everyone starts having dreams about Paul, and regardless of the dream, Paul’s behavior in them remains the same: he doesn’t really do anything. He’s just there. He’s irrelevant. Borgli’s commentary on popularity and the way that celebrity can alter people is mostly a dark comedy delight and is a great opportunity for Cage to do some of his funniest work. However, the more Borgli tries to bring larger themes and ideas into Dream Scenario, the concept itself starts to fall into eye roll-worthy mixed messaging.
‘Dream Scenario’ Is a Weird World for Kristoffer Borgli and Nicolas Cage to Explore
Between the one-two punch of Sick of Myself and, now, Dream Scenario, Borgli is creating an intriguing lineup of work that is both dark and strange in a way that reminds of early Yorgos Lanthimos. Both in his writing and directing, there’s a dark undercurrent and a foreboding feel to them, even when the film is deeply humorous. This gloom is especially apparent in the directing here as brilliant cinematographer Benjamin Loeb (Mandy, After Yang, and Sick of Myself) gives each frame a sort of shadow to the proceedings as if each scene is happening in the murkiness before falling asleep. Even if Dream Scenario mostly takes place at Paul’s college or home, Loeb and Borgli’s camera makes these moments still stand out with their tenebrosity.
For most of Dream Scenario, Borgli gets quite a bit of enjoyment in exploring the possibilities of this idea. Paul meets with a brand agency—led by Michael Cera, with Kate Berlant, and Dylan Gelula, who can’t stop having sex dreams about Paul—and we see how he is going to be used for Sprite ads and potential opportunities with Barack Obama. These types of insights into how celebrity would actually work in this scenario are as witty as they are eerily precise.
Similarly, Borgli and Cage also let loose when the dreams begin to become more malicious, and people start to become afraid of Paul. The dreams themselves allow Borgli and Cage an opportunity to play around with different worlds in a bit-sized fashion, but in these segments, Dream Scenario becomes more of a horror story, turning Paul into a twisted sort of Freddy Krueger creation (a reference the film rightfully makes as well), and lets Cage go all-in with the craziness that entails. Dream Scenario becomes quite playful in how many different types of, well, dream scenarios Cage and Borgli can play around in.
While Borgli’s concept here is an ingenious one that allows Benjamin to become a celebrity overnight (literally), it’s an idea that doesn’t quite work in the final act, as he attempts to make a larger statement and mostly fumbles. It doesn’t fully work to turn Dream Scenario into a bigger conversation about “cancel culture” and even the absurdity of advertisements.
It’s an odd direction for Dream Scenario to go down, and while it’s not clear if he’s trying to make some grand declaration about those who have been “cancelled”—he certainly doesn’t seem like he has an approach to it either way—it comes off as a weird turn for an already very weird film. At times, Dream Scenario can somewhat feel like Borgli came up with an idea he found fascinating, then just didn’t know how that story should wrap up efficiently, so he threw too much into the end as a means to an end. It doesn’t ruin Dream Scenario, but it does end the story on a confusing note.
‘Dream Scenario’ Is One of Nicolas Cage’s Funniest Performances
But Dream Scenario also grants us yet another recent example of Cage doing some of the finest work of his career in the last half-decade—be it with the unhinged Mandy, the exaggerated view of himself in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, or the restrained beauty of his performance in Pig. Dream Scenario will likely go down as one of Cage’s most hilarious roles, as Paul is such a delightful character to watch him dive into. There’s an awkwardness to Paul that Cage beautifully captures, especially when he attempts to make a funny joke and sputters it out incoherently thanks to his nerves, or his inability to react appropriately to his newfound fame. Cage’s take on Paul is almost like his approach to Charlie and Donald Kaufman in Adaptation, but with the restraint he brought to films like Pig and Joe. It’s a great combination and another reminder of Cage’s excellent abilities as an actor.
Even though Dream Scenario doesn’t stick the landing, there’s plenty to admire on the journey to this confusing end. Even though Borgli’s career has been relatively short, it’s bonkers ideas like this that make him a filmmaker to truly be excited about for the future. And even though Cage has always done great work, these last few years have been a testament to his brilliance, and Dream Scenario certainly adds to the lineup of quality roles he’s gotten to sink his teeth into recently. Dream Scenario is like a strange dream that doesn’t quite go in the direction you would’ve hoped, but still, you’re glad you got to experience that vision.
The Big Picture
- Dream Scenario is a dark comedy that explores the depths of fame and the way celebrity can alter people, featuring one of Nicolas Cage’s funniest performances.
- The film delves into the idea of dreams as Paul Matthews, an evolutionary biologist professor, discovers that people are having dreams about him.
- While the concept of Dream Scenario is intriguing and allows for creative exploration, the film falters in its attempt to make larger statements and ends on a confusing note.
Dream Scenario had its World Premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Dream Scenario opens in theaters on November 10.