Dream Scenario (2023)
Directed by Kristoffer Borgli
Written by Kristoffer Borgli
Starring Nicolas Cage, Julianne Nicholson, Michael Cera, Dylan Baker, Tim Meadows
Release Date December 1st
Published December 1st, 2023
Dream Scenario stars Nicolas Cage as college professor, Paul Matthews, a bang average human being who randomly starts showing up in the dreams of strangers and acquaintances alike. Why? No one knows. It starts with Paul's youngest daughter, Sophie (Lily Bird), who suffers a nightmare in which things fall from the sky and her father is there and does not react. He continues just to watch as Sophie begins to float away, all the while calling for him as he stands and watches, doing nothing. As Sophie relates this dream the following morning, Paul can't help but seize on how he feels Sophie is portraying him as a bad father for letting her float away, something she was not doing.
Paul seems to seek out things to take offense to, personal slights that he can seize on as if the world were always conspiring against him. One such offense occurs that same day as Paul attends a lunch with a former colleague. He's chosen to confront this colleague on the vague assumption that she's about to publish a paper that he believes was inspired by his work over a decade earlier. The deeply awkward and uncomfortable confrontation occurs at a restaurant at what this colleague believed would be a friendly bit of catching up. The friend hasn't even picked up her menu before Paul accuses her of not crediting him on her paper.
Never mind that in the more than a decade since they have spoken or that Paul had not published on this topic, he's the one who has been slighted. The scene is edgy and anxiety inducing because we've only begun to know Paul and this is our first lengthy introduction to Paul and he's a sweaty, stammering, deeply awkward mess who doesn't realize what a mess he is. Paul is clearly in the wrong here and his gross entitlement and barely restrained anger charge the scene with a finger nails on a chalkboard like feeling of skin crawling physical cringe.
This feeling will return throughout the entirety of Dream Scenario as Paul grows into a strange viral celebrity and, as happens with such odd fame, he quickly turns into a canceled villain. If you think Paul is hard to take as a smiling, entitled minor celebrity, just wait for the levels of angst inducing cringe behavior he will engage in as his celebrity curdles into infamy. Nicolas Cage's performance is twitch inducing. He makes you wish you could flee from him even as you can't tear yourself away from this fascinating story as it unfolds. The premise is such a grabber that the question of why this guy is appearing so many different stranger's dreams keeps you rooted to your seat.
In an amusing twist, Dream Scenario drifts away from the mystery of Paul showing up in the dreams of strangers and into a strange meditation on cancel culture. Whether Borgli feels that cancel culture is right or wrong or has gone too far isn't the point. Paul is the human embodiment of someone who deserves to be canceled. He's a creep who doesn't realize that he's a creep. The dreams are a manifestation of the feelings that he inspires in people with his ungainly, self focused, deeply awkward presence. He's the prototypical 'nice guy,' he feels like he's never done anything wrong and is entitled to success, praise, and positive attention. He gets angry when the world doesn't bend to his desire but he's also doing little to actually influence the world to be as he would like it to be. Accordiung to his worldview, he's the victim of a world that conspires against him.
It's a sneaky and clever way to approach a satire of people who have been canceled but don't understand why. There is a terrific scene that really gets to the heart of this satirical idea. It's after Paul has been 'canceled.' In a desperate effort to change his fortunes, Paul goes online with a disastrous video apology that will be familiar to anyone who has watched canceled YouTube influencers apologize, play the victim, or pass blame. He moans and cries and blames everyone and then tries to claim he's also a victim and the whole thing, as performed by Cage, makes your skin crawl with its smarmy lack of self awareness and egotistical entitlement.
Dream Scenario is in many ways, an exceptional film. Kristoffer Borgli is a rising star director with a wit and style all his own. Nicolas Cage delivers an incredible performance as a delusional narcissist who completely believes that he's not the bad guy all while he gives off a vibe that makes you want to flee his presence. It's a great performance in a very good movie. That said, Dream Scenario is not an easy movie to recommend. The film created an anxiety in me, a skin crawling ick that I felt in my soul. It's not that anything gross happens in Dream Scenario, it's more akin to a social anxiety where you just feel physically ill at ease and you're trapped with a stranger who won't let you alone. That's not a feeling I can recommend but I can't help but admire a movie that is capable inspiring that feeling.
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