2023, R, 102 min. Directed by Kristoffer Borgli. Starring Nicolas Cage, Julianne Nicholson, Lily Bird, Jessica Clement, Michael Cera, Tim Meadows.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Nov. 17, 2023
We control little in this world, least of all what others think of us. That's the gently despairing moral at the core of Dream Scenario, the lyrical black comedy from Nicolas Cage and director Kristoffer Borgli.
In his last feature, body image satire Sick of Myself, Borgli gouged into the meaty topics of solipsism, narcissism, and self-mutilation as a form of attention seeking. Pro-/antagonist Signe hated the idea of anyone else being the center of attention, and that's not quite true for Paul Matthews (a shambling, awkward Cage), a tenured professor at a middling college who just wants the little bit of notice he feels he has earned: research credit, students to pay attention in class, his daughters (Bird and Clement) to put the phone down at the dinner table, and maybe a little more spark in his fading relationship with his wife (Nicholson).
He gets far more than that little sliver of recognition when he starts popping up in people's dreams. People he knows, random strangers, folks he has never met and to whom he has no connection. Mostly he's just … sort of there, a fact that only fuels the fires of his insecurities. It's not that he's doing anything in particular in the real world to insert himself into all these sleeping psyches. Nor is it completely clear what the night-traveling Paul even is: a Jungian archetype, dredged from the collective consciousness? A Freudian dream symbol? A Barthesian myth? A meme? Freddy Kreuger with a bald patch and an overbite?
The mechanism is less interesting to Borgli than the underlying theme of our own powerlessness in the face of people's perception of ourselves. It's simplistic to say that Dream Scenario is a metaphor for viral fame or – as the phantom Pauls' actions become darker – cancel culture. A third-act jab at the perils of blind commercialization and the toxic pact between tech bros and influencers sidelines Paul, but that is exactly the point. It is, after all, never about him.
However, it is all about Cage and his gentle inhabiting of Paul, his neuroses, tics, ego, and often unhelpful responses to the situation. It would be easy to imagine him sat across the table from fellow fictional academic Alexander Portnoy, shuffling his feet at his more outrageous conversational points. Cage slowly develops Paul's sense of moral outrage and disconnect from the standards of the world. Those themes are most elegantly and hilariously framed in his quickly souring relationship with a publicity firm run by Michael Cera's hip, PR-speak-addled exec. The more Paul tries to control his image, the worse it all gets.
It's a performance that ranks with some of Cage's best, a mix of Pig's earnestness and Adaptation's idiosyncrasies. But it's also a fitting counterpart to last year's broader, more meta The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent – both being given a certain poignancy by Cage's own presence as a figure whose reputation and, well, meme status have been known to overshadow his actual body of work. In Unbearable Weight, that was the joke. Here, it's the tragedy.