A film in which people randomly begin seeing Nicolas Cage in their dreams sounds like the type of project that someone might make up as a joke. But despite the satirical bent of Kristoffer Borgli's latest feature, Dream Scenario, it has a more serious tone than one might think. It feels like the weird love child of Charlie Kaufman and Larry David, in that it has surrealistic elements, existential meditations, and a high-concept premise, while also featuring awkward social situations, cringe humor, and a morally questionable lead. On the surface, there is a lot that this film has going for it, with Cage as the cherry on top. But despite the film's larger ideas in regards to fame and cancel culture, as well as the promise of its basic premise, it rings a bit hollow. That's not to say that it isn't enjoyable in the slightest, as it still has a lot of great things going for it, even if they don't fully come together by the film's end.
Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage) is a rather unremarkable man. He works as a biology professor, and spends time with his family. His life changes when people begin to report that they have been seeing him in their dreams. This inexplicable act confuses Paul at first, but he then embraces it, choosing to use it to his advantage to further his career and get a long-gestating book published. But when his presence in other people's dreams stops being fun and becomes more violent and nightmarish, he must navigate the shifting cultural perception of him, and try to maintain his newfound fame.
This is my introduction to Kristoffer Borgli, and while I appreciate his style and wit, I can't help but feel he is still figuring things out. This is only his third film, and he has this clear ambition and focus that helps the film significantly. The issue I have lies in the volume of the ideas he tries to dispense throughout the film, some of which are fully realized, but a decent chunk of them come across more half-baked. I am glad that the film at least sinks a little more below the surface in exploring fame, but it feels a bit muddled in execution. The gist of what Borgli is commenting on and some of his broader points still come across, but he seems a bit unsure when it comes to the finer details. The satire itself is pretty strong for much of the film, but it kind of peters out a bit in the third act. I wouldn't say that Borgli's observations are the most insightful, but they do serve the overall film extremely well, leading to some of its funniest moments. A scene in which the character of Paul meets with a PR team to better market his image is one of the best of the film, and so much of it is due to the absurdity of the situation Cage's character is in, as well as how it skewers the world of publicity and advertising. Perhaps that is why I find the film a little frustrating, in that it has the right ideas, but it could have used a little push to really drive them home. Borgli is certainly a filmmaker that I see potential in, and I have hope that his next film will be even better than this one.
The film's overarching themes of fame in the digital age are rather potent, especially when you consider how quickly things turn sour for Paul. In this day and age, people can become famous so quickly, and lose the spotlight almost instantly when more details surface on who they are or some of their previous actions. This is the major throughline for the whole film, as Paul's ascent to public figure and the turn against him is so sudden. It mirrors the "Milkshake Duck" trajectory of so many unlikely icons like Ken Bone or the Chewbacca Mom, albeit in a more bizzare way. In some ways the film asks you to sympathize with Paul, as he's just a regular guy who never asked for any of this, but the way he is written highlights the complicated aspects of the character, and makes him a little more morally dubious. He's not a monster, but he makes decisions that seem selfish or misguided, and responds rather horribly to some of the consequences that he must deal with. I think that's the magic of the film, in that Paul isn't fully unlikable, but he's not a hero either. We can still feel for him one second and be disgusted with him the next, further adding to the murkiness of him as a person and the situation at hand. Does he deserve any of what happens to him in the film? Kind of. But the film's refusal to paint him as a true hero or a true villain is what allows its points to hit hard, and gives the audience much more to consider.
The main centerpiece of the film is undoubtedly Nicolas Cage's performance, which allows him to be both reserved and let loose at various points in the film. He mostly plays the former, as Paul is more mild-mannered for much of the film. He does have some bursts of anger and sadness in the back half, but this is far from a gonzo Cage performance. The film knows how to use Cage's persona to play into the uneasiness of Paul as a character, and Cage is game to use this to his advantage. Cage's unpredictability as an actor lends itself well to the uncertainty we feel towards Paul, as we wonder if he is truly what we are seeing, or if there is truly a darker side to him. At any given moment, we feel like there could be a turn with the character, which makes Cage so compelling to watch in this role, and plays into the film's larger themes perfectly. Cage has had a bit of a resurgence lately thanks to films like Pig and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, and it is clear he is riding high with this film. This is perhaps his most fascinating role of the past few years because it is a bit layered, and if anything about this film is guaranteed to stick with viewers, it's his performance.
For a film that features dreams as a major plot element, we do spend a lot of time in the real world. However, it is the way that Borgli and company find the weirdness in the real world that gives the film such a fascinating atmosphere. There is an air of surrealism throughout the films, while the dreams feel slightly more tethered to reality than one might think. It's as if the world of the film is a bit weird, and the dreams are just a notch or two weirder at most. Part of me was hoping that the dreams would feature more and would allow the film to go nuts a little, but it never really reaches that point. I am a little disappointed in this, but then again, that's not exactly what the film is going for. The more I think about it, the more I come to like the film's restraint when it comes to the dreams, as it gives the viewer just enough to differentiate between dreams and reality without doing too much. It also allows these two halves to not feel too incongrous from each other, thus making Borgli's main points hit stronger. All of this to say that the technical elements, while a tad subtler than I would have guessed, are excellent, especially the cinematography and editing. These two especially create such a fascinating, yet slightly uneasy world that both attracts and appalls the viewer. It may not be too flashy or awe-inspiring, but it certainly gets the job done.
Dream Scenario does leave a little to be desired as a whole, but has plenty of interesting thoughts to grab on to. It's the type of film that I can see clicking even better with time, as the more I allow it to sink in with me, the more I am discovering how some of Kristoffer Borgli's smaller choices feed into the overarching commentary he is making. I wouldn't say that this film is particularly incredible or overly spectacular, but it offers up an interesting take on fame in our current world while also making way for an excellent Nicolas Cage performance. I do wish that there was a tiny bit more depth to the film, but it is still rather funny and a delightfully strange film that has a surprising dose of seriousness that will either connect with viewers or repel them.