THE STORY – Hapless family man Paul Matthews finds his life turned upside down when millions of strangers suddenly start seeing him in their dreams. But when his nighttime appearances take a nightmarish turn, Paul is forced to navigate his newfound stardom.
THE CAST – Nicolas Cage, Julianne Nicholson, Michael Cera, Tim Meadows, Dylan Gelula & Dylan Baker
THE TEAM – Kristoffer Borgli (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 100 Minutes
Prepare to meet the Nicolas Cage performance of your dreams. Over 45 years into his eclectic and versatile career, the role of an ordinary evolutionary biology professor comes along and adds another jewel to the actor’s crown. The character of Paul Matthews, an endearing blend of tenderness and awkwardness, is the window into writer-director-editor Kristoffer Borgli’s absurdist comedy “Dream Scenario.” The film follows “remarkable nobody” Paul, a family man suddenly thrust into instant stardom after inexplicably appearing in people’s dreams. What begins as an innocent claim to fame spirals into a nightmare when a subconscious Paul goes from an inactive bystander to a disturbed troublemaker. In the “Dream Scenario” world, dreams are not just sleepy sensations but an extension of waking reality in which he is held accountable for his actions.
The film’s concept is funny in its own right. A random professor pops into everyone’s dreams and does absolutely nothing other than stroll in the background with a blank expression on his face. His appearances are initially welcomed with excitable curiosity and warmth. It evokes a sensation similar to watching an endearing viral video, where the subject simply makes their way into one’s subconscious. But when Paul’s actions in the dreams become the stuff of nightmares, he invades the safety and breaks the trust of those who once revered him. The story constantly builds onto itself and morphs into something new, capturing a mystical and dreamlike quality. Borgli finds a remarkable balance between having fun with the concept and taking it seriously. Each dream sequence is grounded in how it would feel real to the person experiencing it, no matter how strange.
The secret weapon of “Dream Scenario” is the refusal to explain this dream phenomenon. Why it exists in the first place and why everyone on the planet sees Paul in their dreams is a mystery that pulls the viewer into perpetual wonder. The lack of explanation makes the film’s concepts shine even more. “Dream Scenario” deconstructs the ‘dream scenario’ that exists in a given person’s mind. Plenty of people have fantasies they would like to turn into reality, but those visions are impossible to recreate frame by frame from a person’s recollection. The film leans into the disappointment of real life sinking into idealism and holds accountable the image of a person who doesn’t actually exist. Borgli captures this idea with a layered and thoughtful character study, focused on making Paul responsible for subconsciously not living up to the idea that others have of him, nor the idea he has of himself.
The concept of fame and its hive mentality plays an integral role throughout the film. With Paul’s newfound celebrity comes a complete unraveling of perception. Various dream sequences put him through the wringer until he loses all control of his image. The world makes up its mind about him; the minute he stops serving in their best interest, he is turned against. After fighting for the image he once was, Paul contorts into a new version of himself. The film dives into an exploration of cancel culture from an absurdist lens, though not as deeply as one may think. “Dream Scenario” finds its greatest strength by leaning deep into the humor, horror, and pathos of how capricious fame is. The protagonist becomes famous by literally not doing anything – not just in the real world, but on a subconscious level, which is where the humor arises, and the film takes its execution of ideas one step further. The tragedy is drawn from Paul’s reaction to fame; he wants to leverage celebrity for a certain scholarly reason that has not even manifested yet. What he wants to be remembered for is something that, according to those capitalizing on his celebrity, is the least interesting thing about him.
While the pathos is on the page, so much of its emotional impact comes from an extraordinary Nicolas Cage, who gives one of the most idiosyncratic performances of his career. This is the level of work that reignites the love one has for an actor. The role of Paul Matthews plays to many of Cage’s strengths, highlighting his eccentricity and bringing out a more subdued side to him. With a unique talent and perceptive approach, Cage immerses himself in such a specific world while also conveying the universality of the film’s themes and the playfulness of its concept. There is something incredibly poignant about watching this character self-destruct and exploring who he is beyond ‘that guy who shows up in everyone’s dreams.’ Especially in the eyes of Paul’s family: his wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson) and daughters Sophie (Lily Bird) and Hannah (Jessica Clement).
With all the surreal dreams and nightmares happening on screen, one of the most resonating elements of the story is the familial perspective at its core. The aftermath of going viral is explored not only through Paul’s students and faculty, as well as a silly PR firm run by Michael Cera but also (and most meaningfully) Paul’s family and friends. Watching how overnight fame affects an ordinary household and the inflections within people’s relationships is fascinating. For instance, the dynamic between Paul and Janet shifts depending on the fluctuation of his public image. As Janet, Julianne Nicholson is a dream scene partner and complimentary to Cage’s performance. She brings an endearing sense of humor and realism to her character, reminding the viewer of the relationship at stake in real life. Plus, Nicholson powerfully conveys subtle character shifts; Janet’s ideal image of a partner is disillusioned when the world turns on Paul. Nicholson and Cage share lived-in, tender chemistry that makes quite a few of their scenes together (one accompanied by a perfect Talking Heads reference) all the more emotionally stirring.
Beyond the engaging themes and character work, “Dream Scenario” has a vivid visual language throughout. It can be comical by playing into Cage’s physicality and drawing humor from his wandering presence alone. The visual language also treads into nightmare-fueled territory, which is not particularly a surprise given Ari Aster’s involvement as a producer on the film. The horror elements spill out in the exponentially sinister dream sequences; from a smiling Paul charging threateningly through a hallway to a silent Paul standing in a darkened corner of a room, “Dream Scenario” features evocative glimpses of nightmares. The cinematography by Benjamin Loeb (DP on the 2018 Cage-starrer “Mandy“) captures a very specific vision and balances the blurred lines between dreamscapes and reality. Plus, the integration of futuristic dream-related technology blends seamlessly into the real world. Out-there concepts are portrayed in a surreal and grounded way that recalls, for instance, how memory erasure technology blends against the melancholy and mundanity of life in Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
Grounded in topical material with notes of cancel culture, viral fame, and relationship dynamics, “Dream Scenario” is a deeply funny and entertaining tale of wildly spun narratives. Kristoffer Borgli takes an exciting swing with a fully realized concept and a distinctive, consistent vision. The film also casts the perfect actor to embody the surreal, strange, shapeshifting nature of the story. The narrative outcome may not be a dream scenario for Paul Matthews, but this character is the stuff of dreams for Nicolas Cage to play. He excels at finding the humor, horror, and heartbreak in the loss of anonymity and the fickleness of fame.