Dream Scenario is a high-concept dark comedy about celebrity and cancel culture. It stars our old pal Nicolas Cage who, blame it on what you will — tax bills, divorce bills, the price of butter — has appeared in some abominable dreck down the years but has never turned in a boring performance. Mad, yes. Reckless, yes. Maximalist, always. But boring? Never. And he is wonderfully not-boring here. It’s certainly the most Nicolas Cage film since the last Nicolas Cage film, whenever that was. Plus it is entertaining. Mostly.
The film is directed by Kristoffer Borgli (Sick of Myself, also a satire on social media fame) and stars Cage as Paul Matthews even if, when I first glanced at the poster, I thought it starred Paul Giamatti. But no, it’s Cage, rocking the latter-stages-of-male-pattern-baldness look. (The other thing you can’t say about our old pal is that he lacks commitment.) Interestingly, Matthews is a boring man. “Not memorable,” is how someone describes him. He is a professor of evolutionary biology who puts his students to sleep and wears half-zip jumpers, and whose career, through no fault of his own, has stalled. He yearns to publish a book on his specialist subject — swarm behavior; or “ant-elligence” as he calls it — but is too chronically passive to actually research and write it even though he pines for recognition. (Be careful what you wish for.)
He is grippingly not-boring playing this boring man, bringing all his Cage-isms but also soul
He is all ego and no action, yet does, somewhat inexplicably, have a lovely, supportive wife (Julianne Nicholson). Then something weird happens. This being a Nic Cage film, there would have to be weirdness, and it’s this: people start to do a double take at Matthews on the street. Why? He’s turning up in their dreams. Benignly at first: just standing there or walking through. An ex-girlfriend dreams about a horrible car crash and there he is, ambling past in his half-zip sweater. Or it’s his daughter, dreaming about a body falling from the sky, and there he is, in the background, raking leaves. It takes a lot to make me laugh. And? I laughed.
Why is this happening? It’s never explained. This is Charlie Kaufman-esque, in that it expects us to just run with the conceit. Family, friends, strangers, they’re all dreaming about him and soon it’s happening globally and he’s an internet sensation. He becomes “the most interesting man in the world right now.” His lectures are packed. His young daughters, who usually treat him with disdain, beg him to drive them to school. (“I’m a cool dad!”) Branding companies want an in. (Michael Cera plays a talent agent who thinks Sprite is the right hook-up.) Having been aghast at first, he starts lapping up the attention. Young women who have intimate dreams about him even want to re-enact them, leading to a sex scene that is very funny but also embarrassingly pitiful and sad (oh, Paul). I don’t like fart jokes either. But I did here.
The film is produced by Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommar) and there are horror elements because, yes, people’s dreams turn bad, and they are frightened to go to sleep in case “they are abused by this man” and it all turns horribly toxic. Why? Don’t ask. We’re just running with the conceit, remember? But where is the conceit going? Nowhere satisfying. Come the third act, this definitely feels like a film in search of an ending as multiple ideas are thrown around without any real focus.
Ultimately, it fails to pin anything down or tell us what we don’t know already or add to what we heard at the outset in Matthews’s lecture on zebra camouflage: stand out from the crowd and you risk being picked off as prey. But while the film falters Cage never does. He is grippingly not-boring playing this boring man, bringing all his Cage-isms but also vulnerability and soul. It’s certainly the most Nicolas Cage film, until the next one, whenever that will be.