What if, instead of Freddy Krueger haunting your dreams, it was an unassuming, mild-mannered biology professor who looks a lot like Nicolas Cage?
That is precisely the premise of Kristoffer Borgli’s Dream Scenario, a refreshingly unique take on celebrity, memes, cancel culture, and Cage himself. Fresh, funny, and surprisingly sad, Dream Scenario offers Cage the opportunity to play another memorable character.
Paul Matthews (Cage) is an unremarkable and deeply uncool man. An evolutionary biology professor, Paul lives a simple life with his wife, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), who supports his unfulfilled ambitions. Barely memorable to his students and colleagues, Paul is as far from the spotlight as one can get until he begins to appear in random people’s dreams at an exponential rate. Like in life, he doesn’t do much in people’s dreams. He is an observer, merely there, casually strolling by as a witness in the background.
His dream cameos make him an insta-celebrity with friends, strangers, and ad agencies clamouring to get a piece of him. For the first time in his life, Paul Matthews is a somebody. After bashfully accepting his newfound pop culture meme status, pathetic Paul realizes that he can use his fame to finally get his yet-to-be-written book about ant biology published. However, after asserting himself and suffering humiliation, Paul finds himself “cancelled” when he turns people’s formerly mundane dreams into nightmares.
Borgli’s screenplay expertly depicts and skewers fickle and cyclical internet culture with users who are as quick to adopt as they are to shun. Finding that great balance between tragedy and comedy, Dream Scenario lets Paul’s misfortunes pile up. A drably dressed sad-sack who longs to be included, Paul is dismayed when he learns that people care a lot more about what he does at night in their dreams than who he is in his waking hours. Borgli depicts these dreams much in the same way he shows the daytime world, highlighting Paul’s ordinariness.
Much like Paul, Cage is a polarizing figure when it comes to film fans; you either love him or hate him. Here, he is in top form with a performance that straddles the line between Adaptation and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. He’s an anxiously average guy who leans into his ridiculous meme status, but unlike Massive Talent, a love letter to Cage fans, Dream Scenario is for his casual fans, too. Those looking for an over-the-top Cage will be disappointed as this role once again proves the Oscar-winner can be restrained when called for. Here, it’s exactly the right humanized approach as we follow him on his journey to find out what happens when his 15 minutes of fame is up.
Ari Aster acts as a producer here and the comparisons to his latest, Beau Is Afraid, are not unwarranted. Like the titular Beau, Paul is at the mercy of a world that just doesn’t care about him unless it serves their purpose – whether that’s a selfie for social media or a marketing exec with dollar signs in his eyes (played here with great irony by Michael Cera). Inevitably, Paul gets what’s coming to him in a sadly satisfying way.
It should be remembered that Dream Scenario is not a sci-fi movie, so those seeking answers as to how or why Paul suddenly begins appearing in dreams won’t have their questions answered. It’s not a detriment to the film; keeping it a mystery to all involved, including the viewer, only makes Borgli’s vision more enticing. It’s a must-see of TIFF and beyond.