Paul Matthews (Nicholas Cage) should be living the high life.
He has a beautiful wife, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), two beautiful daughters, a nice house and tenure as a professor of evolutionary biology. He wishes to publish a book, see his name in lights and is constantly worried what people think of him. However, the truth is nobody thinks much of him at all. He is altogether unremarkable, but not for long.
A bizarre thing begins to occur when Paul appears as a passive observer in people’s dreams. First it’s people he knows, then friends of friends and before long it becomes a worldwide phenomenon. Nobody can explain it, but for once Paul feels special standing out from the crowd as an international celebrity. But what satisfaction is there in being famous for being famous?
But as people’s dreams and Paul‘s role in them begin to take a darker, much more horrific turn, so does Paul‘s notoriety. He goes from the man of everyone’s dreams to the man of their nightmares. No longer just an oddity but now the source of unending trauma and terror, Paul becomes a pariah in his personal and professional life, hated for something he has no control over. This man who just wished to be known is getting everything he ever wanted and it is horrible!
Based somewhat on a true story (at least one which was reported on) Dream Scenario is written and directed by Kristoffer Borgli. We’ve all heard anecdotes, perhaps experienced it ourselves, of someone having a less than flattering dream about their partner, waking up, then blaming said partner for the actions of their dream counterpart. As a black comedy, Dream Scenario takes a satirical look at parasocial relationships, memetic celebrity and the effects of cancel culture.
The film is presented by A24 and like many of their other films, this one is a wild ride. Dream Scenario has some bumpy moments which don’t quite gel as well as others. It works well showing Paul as an altogether self-obsessed, narcissistic man. One more than happy to take advantage of this Faustian bargain without thinking of the negative consequences until it is too late.
At the same time, Dream Scenario is an indictment of the general love/hate cycle society has towards modern celebrities. We love these people for no reason but can detest their guts with equally little cause. Blaming and shunning them with as much gusto as we embraced them just the day before. This twisted societal aspect feels very much like something from Charlie Kaufman or Ari Aster films, the latter of which serves as a producer here.
Nicholas Cage remains one of the most interesting actors working today. Dream Scenario was his 6th film of 2023 and while many of his films are best left forgotten, his wide range and variety of work lead to some impressive gems. Here, Cage delivers an even mix of comedic silliness with the internal drama of an insecure man going through a mid-life crisis. Watching Cage play Paul, deep down we know he doesn’t deserve the misfortune which is happening to him but we can’t help but laugh at it.
The quirky story flows well, keeping our interest. We’re shown both the highs and the lows that these unexplained phantasms are having not just on Paul but on the whole Matthews family. Borgli‘s script dedicates adequate time to show the effects that this sort of cancel culture has on people. With Paul‘s opportunities in life closing around him, he becomes a pawn in a culture war that he never had any interest in.
Sadly, Dream Scenario feels underwhelming in its punchline, unable to stick a landing. Borgli seems to scramble in wrapping up the story, introducing several themes and pseudo sciences which may be touching or funny to watch, yet still come too far out of left field, resulting in a relatively short film (102 mins) which still feels like it has stretched its core premise too thin.
Nicholas Cage shines, removed from the high energy over the top performances that he more known for. Instead, Cage delivers a more subdued, intense human character piece, similar to his previous work in Adaptation.
Despite losing its steam in the tail end, Dream Scenario is a well-acted, intelligent little curiosity of a film and remains an interesting, and at times, hilarious experience.