starring Nicolas Cage, Julianne Nicholson, Michael Cera, Tim Meadows
written and directed by Kristoffer Borgli
by Walter Chaw There's so much to like about Norwegian filmmaker Kristoffer Borgli's Dream Scenario, it's a shame it takes such a sharp detour at its end, veering away from existential chaos into a more drab and conventional social critique. More's the pity, considering Borgli already trod the "influencers are the horsemen of the apocalypse" ground in last year's queasy Sick of Myself, and trod it well. Where it felt fresh in a movie structured around its Luddite didacticism, in Dream Scenario it feels like an escape hatch that exhibits an essential misunderstanding of what's good about the picture in favour of an uncontroversial popular maxim. The fall of empire is preceded by social media, cancel culture, and going viral against your best intentions? Got it, Grandpa. If this is really where Dream Scenario wants to land, it would've done better to take the route of Stéphan Castang's contemporaneous Vincent Must Die by going hard on its schlub-goes-viral theme from the beginning. Why spend so much time dissecting and undermining Nicolas Cage's seat of honour in our cinematic imagination? At its best, Dream Scenario is the better version of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. At its worst, it's recycling futurist paranoia from at least Minority Report and Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney's more recent (and brilliant) Strawberry Mansion.
Cage is nebbishy behavioural biology teacher Paul Matthews, who discovers one day that multiple, unrelated people--some of whom he doesn't even know--are dreaming about him. He appears in them as a passerby, unbothered by whatever's unfolding, ignoring all questions and pleas. He's a curiosity, though as visitations increase, he finds himself becoming a minor celebrity. Enrollment in his boring class about animal survival adaptations skyrockets. But then, for reasons beyond Paul's control, dream-Paul starts becoming an active actor in dreams: first amorous, then malevolent; what began as a harmless social phenomenon balloons into a problem requiring collective shaming and then violent backlash. Before it all goes bad, Paul tries to capitalize on his recognizability by getting his book (one he hasn't written yet) about ant-hive behaviour published, not understanding that the only thing people are interested in him for is how he's inside their heads. Dream Scenario is a tragedy about an unremarkable man with quotidian aspirations who fails to achieve even those because of his essential misunderstanding of how the world has shifted beneath him while he wasn't paying attention. This is interesting. When it switches gears to proselytize about the possibility of influencers peddling their sponsored wares in your dreams, it gets childish and tedious.
An early sequence in a restaurant where Paul weakly confronts an academic rival who has stolen his ideas plays out like the Tilda Swinton restaurant scene in Adaptation., and Cage is later given the opportunity to go "Full Manic Cage" upon discovering his mutinous students have spray-painted "LOSER" on the side of his otherwise-nondescript car. It's a collection of Cage-isms, Dream Scenario is, and for the longest time, it seems as though Borgli's film will be a study of how this peculiar character actor has ingratiated himself to a point of warm, collegial familiarity. Nicolas Cage's presence in a film has become synonymous with "strange and unpredictable," yet I would offer he doesn't take many chances with his persona at all. He's neither chameleon nor daredevil--he's the sideshow you've visited three times this year, maybe more. He belongs to a pantheon of purveyors of fine and specific quirks that are so well-known they're less wild cards when they appear in a film than weathered signposts pointing towards comfortable destinations. He's cornered the market on "Nic Cage types," and putting him in a film where everyone knows him as a passive presence, even if not everyone knows who he is, is genius. I did love a scene where administrative assistant Hannah (Jessica Clement), who's been having hot sex dreams about Paul, tries to get Paul to cosplay them with her one night after drinks, only to find the fantasy having very little to do with the reality. I loved it for its exquisite awkwardness, but also for the direction the film could have taken, skewering the confused expectations our parasocial fantasies implant in us.
But Dream Scenario, for all the seeds of interest it plants, ultimately doesn't have much on its mind and, worse, lacks the courage to follow its implications through to their unpleasant conclusions. Where Borgli's last film indulged in the full body-horror potential of the self as escalating spectacle, Dream Scenario backs away from real retributive violence against Paul, from the (absurd) legal ramifications of his midnight visitations, and from portraying the erosion of Paul's mental health as frightening rather than as another opportunity for Cage to go ham. Dream Scenario is merely a broad metaphor and a high concept with nothing to teach--especially not to a generation of people born plugged into the World Wide Web. You will inevitably be destroyed by being too visible? Living your life in the full glare of public scrutiny is an unending nightmare? Someone will inevitably license the ad space on the inside of your skull? The irony of Dream Scenario is how its effectiveness is a few years in the rearview: a film that might seem better in a decade or so, when its actual age camouflages just how elderly it's always seemed.