Nicolas Cage is the man of everyone’s dreams in ‘Dream Scenario’

Nicolas Cage, left, and Dylan Gelula in “Dream Scenario”. MUST CREDIT: A24

Nicolas Cage, left, and Dylan Gelula in “Dream Scenario”. MUST CREDIT: A24

Published Dec 14, 2023


By Ann Hornaday

Nicolas Cage goes delightfully, derangedly meta in “Dream Scenario”, a smart, dizzyingly entertaining horror-comedy that morphs into scathing social satire.

Written and directed by Norwegian film-maker Kristoffer Borgli – here making an auspicious English-language debut, “Dream Scenario” is the kind of heady, imagistic, sharply attuned film we’ve come to expect from the likes of Charlie Kaufman (“Adaptation”) and Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”); at its darkest and most vividly cinematic, it evokes the work of Ari Aster, who serves as one of the film’s executive producers.

Mostly, it’s a showcase for Cage to prove once again why he’s a national treasure – never more so than when he’s in bemused normie mode.

The nondescript Everyman in question is Paul Matthews, a mild-mannered college professor whose expertise is in evolutionary biology; he teaches classes on adaptation (hi, Charlie) and the fine art of blending in.

As “Dream Scenario” opens, we see Paul raking leaves with his teenage daughter Sophie (Lily Bird) nearby. Suddenly, things begin to slip into surreality, as Sophie levitates and the whole tableau comes crashing down into the shards of a shattered glass patio table – while Paul observes the catastrophe from the passive middle distance.

Nicolas Cage in “Dream Scenario”. MUST CREDIT: A24

It turns out that it’s all a dream – Sophie’s, in fact. But soon Paul’s colleagues, students and random passers-by tell him he’s been showing up in their dreams, too.

And doing nothing while they’re enduring all manner of crises. Paul becomes famous as the anonymous Area Man inexplicably invading everyone’s unconscious, the kind of notoriety that can’t help but lead to a particular kind of celebrity.

As the guy who started a bizarre dream epidemic, he becomes the most interesting person in the world, “right now”.

That’s what he’s told by a smarmy agent played note-perfectly by Michael Cera, who informs him that Sprite might be interested in some spon-con. (“They’re down to go kinda weird with it.”)

At Halloween, Paul becomes a Nicolas Cage-level meme even as his dream-life character is growing more malevolent.

“Dream Scenario” ultimately takes Borgli’s intriguing premise to speculative extremes that begin to hint at diminishing returns. It’s best when simply observing Paul’s hapless journey from idol to pariah in a dispiritingly familiar arc involving social media, campus safety culture, the cycle of public shaming and apology, and the collective hive mind.

Borgli does a splendid job of mini-movie-making in elaborately staging the dreams Paul shows up in, making “Dream Scenario” as much a love letter to cinema as a meditation on Jungian synchronicity and skewerable social mores; what’s more, he drenches his movie in a spectacular colour palette of autumnal golds, reds and oranges, a dazzling visual treat worthy of the reality-adjacent world he’s building.

As always, Julianne Nicholson brings authenticity and humaneness to her role, here as Paul’s level-headed wife, Janet.

The more far-out “Dream Scenario” gets, the more viewers might wish that Borgli would simply keep his focus on the warp and woof of the Matthewses’ marriage, if only to give Nicholson the screen time she so richly deserves.

When the story zags into a parody of tech overreach (a storyline featuring an amusing cameo), “Dream Scenario’s” footing isn’t as sure.

This clever, adroitly executed taxonomy of contemporary fame – its absurdities, excesses and wanton destructive power – makes it one of the most intriguing and satisfying movies of the season.

Missing it would be a total nightmare.

∎ “Dream Scenario” is showing at cinemas nationwide.