Somewhere between Beau is Afraid, Being John Malkovich, and A Nightmare on Elm Street exists Dream Scenario, the latest in a long line of “only Nic Cage could be in something this weird and not just pull it off, but make it transcendent” movies. In it he plays Paul Matthews, a professor and wannabe author who, through no fault of is own, suddenly appears in the dreams of people worldwide. It’s a fascination for him at first, but the myriad complications which arise from his sudden, unexplained celebrity turn his life upside down with troubling ease.
Nic Cage is the perfect guy for the role, but it wasn’t always his, nor was Borgli originally slated to direct. Initially the project was Ari Aster’s, who wanted Adam Sandler as the lead, but after Aster saw Borgli’s previous film, Sick of Myself, it was decided that the latter, who penned the script, should also be in the director’s chair. Aster stayed on board as producer, and his influence shows, but this is a Borgli film through and through. If you’ve seen Sick of Myself (and if you haven’t, you should), you know that both fame and the ills of social media are very much on Borgli’s mind. But while his prior film is told from the point of view of a twisted person trying to find fame, Dream Scenario is about a powerfully normal person who has fame thrust upon him.
It’s not that Paul doesn’t want to be noticed — he’s trying to get his name placed on a scholastic report written by a colleague who borrowed from his ideas — but global notoriety is well beyond his ambition. Sure, he feels entitled to an author credit on his colleague’s paper, but deep down he knows that he doesn’t deserve it — he still hasn’t put pen to paper on any of his long-gestating ideas.
By having a reluctant protagonist, Borgli’s brilliant script is able to pull the lens back and excoriate the fame machine from many angles. Shallow viewers will likely try to reroute the film’s themes into an “anti-woke” screed (Paul does indeed point out the inherent ridiculousness of the phrase “lived experience”), but its satirical barbs go much deeper. Yes, there is fun to be had at the expense of terminally upset college kids, but Dream Scenario places no blame or judgment upon them, but rather on a society that, much like the one depicted in Sick of Myself, fetishizes and glorifies the taking of offense, resulting in a world that performs evil acts in the name of being good. This is made clear by Paul’s response to his newfound fame. He wouldn’t admit it, but initially he’s excited by the fact that he didn’t have to earn his stardom. Even though what transpires is unfair and cruel, Paul is not innocent. He was indeed happy to dance with the tiger…until it started biting.
I could go on at a novel’s length on the satire, but I’d still only crack the surface. Dream Scenario jabs at all of us while also highlighting how poisoned we are by our connectivity, and how, despite our modern brains and amenities, we’re still the same scared, ego-driven animals that will lie to ourselves incessantly just so we can delight in the pain of others. Borgli is able to make such strong declarations due to how goddamn funny the movie is. Divorced of all social concerns, the fact of the matter is that Dream Scenario is one of the funniest movies of recent memory. Sure, it’s upsetting at every turn, and truly bizarre to boot, but the laughs pretty much never stop.
The dream sequences are surreal and absurd (and eventually horrifying), and Cage’s performance as the hapless Paul is some of his best work to date. Nobody does it like Cage, but even so, he disappears entirely into his character. Paul feels like a real dude — a pitiable man who is in over his head. Cage makes him human without losing the idiosyncrasies that make Nicolas Cage Nicolas Cage.
I must also give props to Julianna Nicholson as Janet, Paul’s poor poor wife, who really doesn’t want any of this, but who loves her husband dearly. She’s the emotional center of the film, and Paul’s plight wouldn’t draw as much ampathy without her presence. Same goes for Lily Bird and Jessica Clement, their Gen Z daughters, who act as the gauge for Paul’s notoriety. “Leave me alone, Dad” soon becomes a cheerful, hopeful “can you drive me to school?”
The third act may be off-putting to some, at which point the Charlie Kaufman of it all pushes things into a new level of absurdism, but it worked phenomenally well on me. It features a hard-to-swallow element, but one that isn’t at odds with the film’s established reality (in my humble and absolutely correct opinion). It all culminates in a final flourish that is as silly as it is tragic as it is moving as it is impressively realized. I am im awe.
It’s worth noting that mere hours after watching this movie I had a dream in which Nic Cage appeared. It was The Rock-era Cage, so not quite a one-to-one experience here, but it was still a fun nighttime byproduct of taking in an excellent movie. I imagine that back in 1984, folks similarly dreamt of Freddy Krueger after he scared their pants off at the multiplex.
Directed by Kristoffer Borgli
Written by Kristoffer Borgli
Starring Nicolas Cage, Lily Bird, Tim Meadows, Dylan Baker
Rated R, 100 minutes