Dream Scenario (United States, 2023)

November 29, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Dream Scenario Poster

With a surreal atmosphere and offbeat narrative, Norwegian writer/director Kristoffer Borgli’s Dream Scenario distantly recalls Being John Malkovich while offering commentary on both the warped and fleeting nature of fame and the corrosive impact of a culture dominated by memes and instant gratification. Into this maze wanders Nicolas Cage, shedding the cumulative detritus of years of bad movies to give a spot-on performance as an average guy trapped in a bubble not of his own making. Although being marketed as a dark comedy, Dream Scenario is closer to fantasy-horror in its makeup. It’s as likely to make a viewer flinch as laugh. To the extent that it’s funny, the chuckles are apt to be of the nervous variety.

Paul Matthews (Cage) is about as ordinary as ordinary can be. He’s a tenured college professor who incessantly talks about writing a book he hasn’t yet started while offering uninspired lectures to students who are either tuned out or about to fall asleep. Then, through no fault of his own, Paul starts appearing in people’s dreams. The more media attention Paul gets, the bigger the global phenomenon becomes. Scientists can’t explain it but the exposure catapults Paul to stardom (of the flavor-of-the-week variety). In most dreams, Paul is a non-participant, simply walking through without saying or doing much. The higher Paul’s star rises, the greater its impact on his family. His two daughters, Sophie (Lily Bird), and Hannah (Jessica Clement), don’t know what to make of it. His wife, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), is wary, disliking the spotlight.

Things change in an instant when the vision-Paul turns violent. The dreams turn to nightmares as Paul earns the nickname of “Freddy Krueger.” Students begin avoiding his classes, not feeling comfortable in the same space as him. It becomes so bad that the dean (Tim Meadows) forces him to take a paid sabbatical. When he goes to a restaurant, he is asked to leave and, when he refuses, he becomes embroiled in a confrontation that turns violent. Through all of this, Paul is increasingly frustrated that he is being persecuted not for anything he has done but because people are having bad dreams featuring someone who looks like him. For good measure, he even has one of those dreams himself.

Borgli’s screenplay has some unflattering things to say about the experience of going viral and how easily fame (of the positive kind) can turn ugly. The movie runs into some trouble when it attempts to explain Paul’s uncanny “ability.” During the third act, the filmmaker turns his focus to infomercials and commerce and that’s when Dream Scenario slips off the rails. This part of the movie, although no less sharp in its satirical attacks, feels divorced from everything that has come before.

Cage’s performance here, taken in conjunction with some of his other recent roles (in particular, Pig and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent), indicates he may be moving away from the cash-first options that have tarnished his reputation since the mid-2000s. He has no trouble inhabiting Paul – an introverted, socially awkward schlub who suddenly finds himself famous and is unable to process or capitalize on his popularity. Of the supporting players, two stand out: Michael Cera, who plays the smarmy head of a publicity agency eager to sign Paul as a client, and Dylan Gelula as Molly, whose Paul-dreams are sexual in nature. The scene in which she seduces Paul into recreating them is as close as Dream Scenario comes to being an overt farce (while still maintaining the creepiness factor).

Dream Scenario is filmed in a fashion that emphasizes the surreal nature of the material, using things like flash-frames to impart subliminal messages and presenting dreams as reality and reality as dreams. There were a couple of instances late in the proceedings when I wasn’t sure whether the movie was depicting a dream or a “real” event. The viewer comes to share Paul’s frustration, exasperation, and anger with his situation and the allegorical aspect about the disposable nature of celebrity is impossible to miss. Borgli isn’t the first filmmaker to make this observation – it has been done so often as to be a cliché – but his means to the end is original. With its offbeat blend of warped humor, dramatic and horror elements, social commentary, and Talking Heads, Dream Scenario may not always be comfortable but it is undeniably provocative.

Dream Scenario (United States, 2023)

Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: 2023-11-22
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence, Sexual Content)
Genre: Comedy/Fantasy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1