Dream Scenario is the latest comedic high-concept film from adored indie distributor A24. It follows a man, Paul Matthews, played by Nicolas Cage, as he ascends to celebrity status following a phenomenon in which he randomly appears in the dreams of people he does not know. Writer-director Kristoffer Borgli (Sick of Myself) is joined by producers Lars Knudsen and Ari Aster, the director behind horror movies Hereditary, Midsommar, and this year’s Beau is Afraid. With such a compelling hook and sizable talent behind the project, Dream Scenario makes a gallant effort to reach audiences’ expectations, but it follows just shy.
Paul Matthews is a pathetic, pathetic man, and not in a fun way such as languishing for love. No, instead, Paul is chronically inert. He’s a tenured professor, comfortable with his position in life despite being thoroughly dissatisfied with its prestige. He yearns to publish a book. Not write said book, or do the academic research necessary to write said book, but to publish it and be recognized for his accomplishment. He can be selfish and conceited, desperate for others to hold him in high esteem yet unwilling to put in the hard work. Ultimately, though, the bald and bearded professor is harmless.
Most of the comedy of Dream Scenario is derived from the inherent patheticness of Paul Matthews, so to speak. Nicolas Cage, who audiences just saw in Renfield, does a fantastic job bringing him to life, the perfect actor capable of selling each awkward, stilted moment as well as each one born in anger as the tone begins to shift into the second half of the film. Much of the comedy throughout Dream Scenario is more physical and situational, and Cage handles it perfectly, capable of inspiring laughs from an entire theater.
Michael Cera also has a supporting role as Paul’s eventual agent named Trent, and he brings the humorous awkwardness he is so beloved for to this role. As for the remainder of the comedy in Dream Scenario, the comedic timing of the actors’ delivery is ever-so-slightly off. This could be an intentional decision on the part of Kristoffer Borgli, in an effort to cause the events to seem off-kilter, but it sadly feels like a disservice. As hilarious as Borgli’s script is at times, it’s not as refined or razor-sharp as it could be and the performances are quintessential in elevating the material from words on a page to a joke worth laughing at.
Throughout Dream Scenario, there is an extended metaphor concerning evolutionary defense mechanisms prey have adapted to avoid capture from predators. While clever at first, with a brief glimpse of foreshadowing and as one of the many theses of the film, the analogy stales a bit as the plot progresses. This is because the thematics of the story consider the choices that Paul does or does not make, and how he grapples with the consequences of those choices. The analogy is regarding how he’s perceived and how others see him, more of a hint of what’s to come than any real reflection on who he is or who he’s become.
Otherwise, the story itself can be quite captivating. Paul celebrates the highs of fame and is incapable of grappling with its lows. It never veers too far into the outlandish, just far enough to be funny rather than distracting, and it’s painfully realistic in how it chooses to portray its subject and what would probably happen if he started appearing in the dreams of strangers. Paul’s relationship with his wife Janet, played by Julianne Nicholson, is especially compelling. Their dynamic is zeroed in on as the heart of Dream Scenario by its end. Janet attempts to be the voice of reason within this entire situation, but Paul becomes too blindsided by his newfound attention to see it, leading them to drift apart.
Inevitably, there is a mention of cancel culture in Dream Scenario. “Cancel culture” is a bit of a buzzword, many people misunderstand what it actually is. Filmmaker Kristoffer Borgli seems to recognize this misunderstanding. Cancel culture is a wave of hate on the internet, as many believe it is, but it’s people being held accountable for their poor behavior. What “being held accountable” means is up for debate and a complex issue. However, the main point is that being “canceled” is all a matter of personal responsibility, a theme Dream Scenario is deeply concerned with. Being “canceled” is a consequence, and though the spark that started the fire may be seemingly insignificant, it is never baseless.
Dream Scenario is a pretty typical dark satire for A24, not one of their Oscar-worthy offerings but also not a total miss either. If you are similar to the brand that the distributor has built, there is a good chance that you will be able to anticipate the overall feel and quality of Kristoffer Borgli’s film. Visually it looks great, with warm fall tones and harsh winter colors creating a rich, beautiful landscape. Bolstered by a great performance by Nicolas Cage, he carries Dream Scenario across the finish line even when the script begins to drag during its runtime. If the premise remains interesting to you, Dream Scenario is definitely worth the watch.