Dream Scenario

Dream Scenario

Dream Scenario
Genre: Black Comedy
Director: Kristoffer Borgli
Release Year: 2023
Runtime: 1h 42m

Is it just me or has Nicolas Cage made like 4,852 movie in the last five years? I know he had some sort of weird Elvis fetish (I mean besides being married to his daughter for a couple years in the early 2000s) and bought like the elephant man’s bones or something. Or was that Michael Jackson? Who, coincidently, was also married to Lisa Marie Presley. In fact, are we sure Michael Jackson and Nicolas Cage aren’t the same person? The point is, he racked up a lot of debt buying stupid, useless shit — some having to do with Elvis and some having to do with him being a little crazy. Which, coincidently led to both his dip in popularity in popular movies, and his need to do almost everything he was offered to dig his ass out of a money hole. So, it was with some caution that I walked into Dream Scenario, with no clue if this was just another in a long line of weird b-movies he agreed to to pay some bills, or something actually worth my while.

As it turns out, this was one for us. An oddball movie to be sure. But one that has a point of view, is super-original and really leaves you with some stuff to think about. I… think I actually enjoyed it. Which is kind of rare if you’ve ever read anything on this site. I hate puppies. And fun. And love in all its guises. So this is high praise from me. Take it seriously!

The concept is relatively straight-forward. Cage’s character, Paul Matthews, is your typical loser college professor. He’s a faceless, gutless vanilla man. But for reasons unknown he begins appearing in peoples’ dreams. An innocuous man wandering innocuously in the background. He’s passive as the dreamer is suffering some kind of trauma and/or potential harm. Some people start to recognize him IRL from their dreams. And then more people. And finally Paul does a TV interview and becomes a celebrity for basically doing nothing. Which, as you can imagine, takes a dark, dark turn. Because this isn’t a comedy. It’s a black comedy!

The thing is, the movie isn’t very generous to its lead character. Usually the loser gets his day in the sun and/or some sort of arc that allows him to transcend his situation. To learn a lesson about how to be a more confident and assured person. They are usually the protagonist. But, no, this loser is basically unmasked as a needy, pathetic, cringey dick who doesn’t deserve love or sympathy. Apparently. Much like the John Cusack’s puppeteer character from Being John Malkovich, he is ultimately a thing that the writer/director plays with, tortures for a bit and then discards into a kind of purgatory/hell. This movie has a ton of Kaufman-esque vibes. With its self-referential, meta narratives that involve a kind of surreal organic sci-fi fantasy that defies genre. But it also has the horror, disturbing edge of another recent film that had some similar themes and many similar visual cues, Beau Is Afraid. The fact that that movie’s writer/director, Ari Aster, is the producer of this film is not at all surprising. He and Dream Scenario’s writer/director, Kristoffer Borgli, definitely have a similar esthetic and sensibility. Like it or not.

As Paul’s celebrity increases and the dreams people are having about him change quite dramatically, he is thrown into the swirl of what amounts to cancel culture to the extreme. He works with a terrible PR firm helmed by an incredibly modern, douchey Michael Cera with the misguided hope that they’ll help him promote the book he hasn’t actually written. Without the self-awareness that the only reason he’s even a thing is because he is magically appearing in people’s heads. In some of the most cringey scenes ever, we see his desperation unfold with old co-workers who have surpassed him, publishing their own books or award-winning studies. And, in one of the most awkward scenes ever put to film — and one that made me want to somehow turn myself inside out with shame and horror — we get a rendezvous with Cage and the PR firm’s young assistant, Dylan Gelula. I won’t give away what happens, but suffice it to say that I will have a hard time seeing Cage in anything else ever again.

Paul’s life continues to spiral as the friendly public who made him an overnight star turn on him. Trying to stem the tide, he makes things worse. And, honestly, his wife’s (Julianne Nicholson) reaction is one of the things I bumped on. I don’t know quite what happened — and maybe it was part of their earlier relationship that ended up on the cutting room floor — but she also turns on him real quick. We didn’t get the sense his delusion and self-pity was a major issue in their relationship, but once he fucks up one thing, she is out on Paul. It just felt abrupt to me. If she knew this dude for that long, she must have known he had a sad idiot streak in him, but she seems surprised by his self-saving, defensiveness to a situation that is, in fact, not his fault. He didn’t ask to show up in people’s dreams. He just did. Also, the person in that dream is not him. It’s a manifestation of some sort of group think. So when he’s forced to apologize for shit he did in a dream that he has nothing to actually do with, you’d think the long-time wife would maybe, kinda see the absurd reality of the situation. Seems she was just looking for an excuse to dump this dude.

Cage actually plays a decent loser. I mean he was H.I McDunnough in Raising Arizona. And sweaty loserish Charlie Kaufman stand-in in Adaptation. And he is nothing but great in this film. He does uncomfortable really well. And he acts the hell out of things. I mean it’s really hard to divorce yourself from the fact you’re watching Castor Troy from Face/Off and fully buffed-out Cameron Poe from Con Air. But it feels almost as though he’s embodying this character in a really unhealthy way. It’s not a subtle movie, and a subtle performance would have been lost in the crazy visuals and complex-ish, surreal plot. He, being Cage, is able to cut through at just the right volume and temperature. Is Nic Cage a real actor? Have I lost my mind? I mean he did win an Academy Award for Leaving Las Vegas. A depressing-ass movie that nobody I know has revisited even once since it came out in 1995. The man has been in our lives for so long at this point that he is just there. But whatever is going on with this third act in his career, he’s picked a really interesting film with this one. The visual storytelling is vivid and, at times, bizarre. There are some really funny lines and scenarios throughout. And, as I mentioned, there is a tinge of horror that involves some gore, but lots and lots of dread. The end takes some of the messaging about the frailty of fame and the power of group think a little too far as it steps out of the framework of the narrative, but the whole film leaves you with a lot of questions about how far society would go to control us just to sell us a can of Sprite. It does bring it back, though, with an amazing Talking Heads site gag that reminds you this is a comedy at heart. One, ironically, whose heart is as black as coal.