Dream Scenario, the fantasy/comedy/horror/sci-fi hybrid, is a perfect example of the kind of independent filmmaking that puts cookie cutter sequels and franchise films to shame. Brought to us by A24 – the same studio that gifted us with the equally outré Best Picture Oscar winner, Everything Everywhere All At Once – Dream Scenario takes a cautionary look at celebrity and cancel culture as it traces the fantastical plight of a nondescript, bespectacled, bald and bearded biology professor named Paul, hilariously brought to life by Nicolas Cage. In an early scene, Paul is shown explaining to his students why evolution had given zebras black and white stripes; it’s so that they can blend in with the herd, because standing out is detrimental to their survival. Little does Paul realize, he’s a zebra that’s about to lose his stripes.
Paul has tenure, an accepting wife, two daughters, and a humdrum yet comfortable existence. That is, until he goes viral after acquaintances and strangers alike begin to inexplicably dream about him. The phenomenon begins benignly with his daughter. Shortly afterwards, Paul starts detecting murmurs among his students and odd stares from strangers. When he runs into an old flame he hasn’t seen in decades, she confesses she’s been having recurring dreams where he suddenly appears on the periphery as an observer. Paul gives her permission to write about her experiences in an article that ends up online, triggering a social media avalanche of people reporting that they too have seen Paul passing through their dreams.
Chronically lacking in self-esteem and craving to be noticed, Paul welcomes the attention, and tries to parlay his newfound celebrity into a book deal after an ingratiating marketing executive, played by Michael Cera, tries to exploit his nocturnal ubiquity for Sprite commercials. But, through no fault of his own, when Paul’s amusingly passive dream cameos suddenly become disturbingly violent, his own personal dream scenario of fame and fortune becomes a living nightmare.
Like most stars in the late stages of their careers, Nicolas Cage occasionally plays a variation of a previous role. In Dream Scenario, there are echoes of Cage’s portrayal of the obsessively insecure screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, from his 2002 film, Adaptation. As with Adaptation, Cage has created a cringe-inducing character by imbuing Paul with an awkwardness that keeps him socially at arms length, turning him into the kind of guy more likely to be jokingly referenced at a dinner party as opposed to actually being invited. At times, Cage drifts perilously close to parody. But even then, he grounds his performance by conveying the pain of self-loathing with nothing more than a look in his eyes.
Written and Directed by Norwegian filmmaker Kristoffer Borgli, Dream Scenario also recalls the scripts written by Charlie Kaufman, especially 2004’s The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Borgli, who did the editing as well, subtly introduces ambiguity with elliptical structuring, blurring the lines between dreams and reality, especially in one scene featuring a school play. Following the abundant humor in the first half of the film, some might find Borgli’s tonal shift to darker territory off-putting, but I found it to be a bold choice that cleverly subverted expectations. Dream Scenario is a smart and insightful film about human nature, and marks another career high point for Nicolas Cage.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski
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