We’re getting so many high-concept comedies starring Nicolas Cage lately that one may think we’re back in the 80s. With that in mind, while Renfield may not have turned out to be the best companion to Vampire’s Kiss, Dream Scenario certainly wants to fit right in with Adaptation. But does it succeed? Well, writer/director Kristoffer Borgli wisely doesn’t fixate on how to directly emulate Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman. Instead, the Norwegian filmmaker opts for a dark comedy with ideas on its mind revolving around societal worth. And thanks to some layered comedic work on Cage’s part, there’s plenty of fun to be had here, even if I wish the film explored its complexity just a bit more.
Cage stars as Paul Matthews, a biology professor who could be described as unremarkable, let alone boring. For no specific reason, however, Paul begins showing up in people’s dreams. They range from friends and family to complete strangers. These dreams are especially peculiar as Paul does nothing more than appear, as in walking into a scene and providing no interaction. However, once this phenomenon goes viral, placing Paul into the spotlight, the dreams and Paul’s actions begin to become more intense (in a murder-y sort of way), turning Paul’s celebrity status into infamy.
Here’s the thing – that basic summation is all the movie really has to offer from a plot standpoint. I wouldn’t necessarily call it redundant, but Paul’s journey doesn’t have a whole lot of moving parts. It’s ultimately a fairly typical rise-and-fall story that speaks to any number of people elevated to a new level of fame, only for them to either relent based on their actions or move on to the next big thing. Dream Scenario has other cards to play regarding why this movie works as well as it does. Still, I couldn’t help but feel there was a missing component to better round out what this film was ultimately after.
The good news is, however, that the film is also very funny. As much as it functions as an oddball indie film, it’s also a crowd-pleaser. Borgli skillfully finds ways to involve us in Paul’s life and lets us see things from his perspective. That leads to various comedic highlights, including lots of cringe-based comedy, amusing jump cuts in the editing, physical gags, and offbeat ideas designed to maximize laughter, even when leaning into the tension of a given scene.
Much like Borgli’s previous film, Sick of Myself, which focused on a self-obsessed clout chaser who resorted to efforts fitting of a body horror movie to get attention, Dream Scenario rides a pretty thin line when it comes to pushing things into thriller territory. A lot of that is Cage, whose bearded face and calm smile have a way of feeling both harmless and sinister simultaneously in many instances. Otherwise, it’s Borgli and his team doing what’s needed to make the ordinary seem dangerous. The dreams we witness are sometimes centered around familiar settings, like a living room or a backyard. Other times, we see a more abstract scenario present itself, such as shaking rooms with objects falling from above.
Do these different environments symbolize anything in particular? Is there meaning to the specific ways Cage’s Paul becomes a notable figure to so many? If there’s one thing this film does manage to do, it makes the viewer more intrigued than ever when it comes to the curiosity one has over what another has to say about their dream. Granted, in real life, it’s usually not very interesting to listen to someone describe their dream to you, while a film can match it with a visual. Regardless, mining more of an emotional response (be it laughter or something else) based on the depiction of dreams goes a long way in keeping the effectiveness of this feature clear.
It’s easy enough to link the response Paul is having to becoming a weird global sensation with how things escalate in the dreams, but it’s not as though every movie premise requires subtlety. While the first half of this reasonably brisk 100-minute film is rooted more in the comedy of the situation and how normal, corny, and perhaps even put-upon Paul is, the second half finds more areas to explore.
The way Paul evolves based on what he claims to want versus what we witness makes the character pathetic in so many ways. In turn, one can consider whether it’s the way culture looks at this man that pushes his take on his own status, or if Paul has always had an unpleasant side to him. An early meeting suggests this man has a chip on his shoulder but is inept at doing anything about it, but adding such a fantastical element into his life grows his disposition so far past anything he had ever expected.
In speaking to all of this, it should be clear that Cage is entirely in the zone here. This very calculated performance adds all the little details needed to get a strong sense of who this guy is, where he’s coming from, and how he’s changing. Holding back from the stronger (louder) personas he’s known to embody now and again, this is a meek man who is given just enough rope to hang himself with if he so chooses, and watching Cage play off all the beats given to him is a true delight.
Other familiar faces also pop in, including Michael Cera and Kate Berlant as a marketing firm with some hilarious suggestions on how to sell Paul to the public in ridiculous ways. Tim Meadows is also on hand as the dean of Paul’s college, underplaying several scenes in a way that allows the film to feel grounded and funnier because of how “regular” people still essentially are. Julianne Nicholson gets the most to do as Paul’s wife, Janet, who doesn’t take too kindly to all the attention her husband is receiving, as she can see the potentially dangerous path it could all lead down. Still, she’s quite good at playing someone believably in love with Paul, with a sense of feeling just adrift enough to know things could be called into question.
During the film’s final section, there is hope that more can be said about how society can balance love and rejection. I didn’t need a definitive answer to questions of “why.” Still, it does feel as though a dovetail toward a resolution regarding a relationship comes at the cost of speaking more to the movie’s themes. I can only envision what that would have been like, but it doesn’t stop Dream Scenario from being a wildly entertaining feature that contains a terrific Cage performance at its core. Now, just be sure to watch out for him when you sleep.