Nicolas Cage mostly keeps things on the road in this intriguing black comedy about a nobody who randomly starts appearing in people's dreams.
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I am not, as a rule, a big fan of the oeuvre of “batsh*t crazy Nic Cage” movies.
A lot of his fans are, appreciating flicks in which he’s largely unburdened by keeping to a straight narrative or traditional character development, freed up to chew the scenery, roll his eyes maniacally and otherwise do very Nic Cage-y things.
A little of that goes a short way for me.
It’s been a thing since at least 1988’s “Vampire’s Kiss,” although “Adaptation” represented perhaps the high-water mark of this. His newest, “Dream Scenario,” is closer to that film in tone and execution, and also seems ‘inspired’ — to use the polite term — by the writings of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.
Cage plays Paul Matthews, a wholly unremarkable middle-aged family man and professor, who randomly starts appearing in millions of people’s dreams. No one is able to explain this phenomenon, and in fact the film isn’t terribly interested in exploring the metaphysics behind it.
Rather, it looks at the impact on Paul’s life and psyche, suddenly thrust into being an overnight celebrity — “the most interesting person in the world,” as he’s flattered. As you might guess, things take a turn toward the macabre, and Paul’s 15 minutes of fame extend into an unceasing, tragic curse.
Norwegian writer/director Kristoffer Borgli made last year’s “Sick of Myself,” his first feature film, which I quite admired. Both movies are ostensibly comedies, though of the very blackest pitch imaginable, and also have sneakily smart and interesting things to say about modern society’s neuroticism.
Paul has a nice house in the suburbs, a loving wife, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), and two teen daughters (Lily Bird and Jessica Clement, both kept thoroughly shunted to the background.) He’s a tenured professor of biology at an unnamed university, and has been planning for years to write a book on the macroeconomics of ant society.
His inconsequential dweebiness is underscored by the way Cage is made up, with a bald head, squarish glasses and omnipresent sweaters that can’t fully conceal a flubbery dadbod. The sense we get early on is he’s a basically decent guy, if a bit anxious and hypercritical toward others.
Without warning or reason, one day people all over the world start having dreams with Paul in them. Usually he is merely a random observer, a background player or passerby in the dream’s main action. A lot of the time, the dreams in which he is present involve typical distress — being hunted, injured or otherwise in danger — and he’s upset that his dream self doesn’t do anything to lend a hand.
Paul has no consciousness of other people’s dreams, and he himself does not dream of himself in other people’s. But it’s not exaggerating to say he’s tickled at finally gaining some notoriety, even if it’s for such a weird occurrence. He’s positively giddy when his usual classes are suddenly packed with people who want to talk to him.
Janet is largely supportive, though cracks in their relationship are revealed when the attention results in things like an old girlfriend looking him up because she’s been experiencing the dreams.
Paul does TV interviews and meets with some shallow Millennial marketers (Michael Cera is the boss) who want to leverage his newfound status for Sprite ads and the like, which he resists. His focus is on finally getting his ant book published. (Even his dreams are meager.)
But then the dream-Paul stops being a witless bystander and begins doing things to the dreamers… very bad things. Though it makes no sense, his former fans turn on him. His students refuse to attend his class. Just eating at a restaurant provokes a simmering fury.
His unearned celebrity morphs to ostracism virtually overnight, and Paul suffers extreme emotional anguish over being blamed for imagined things he had nothing to do with.
My take is the movie is a parable about cancel culture, and the way people’s entire lives and status can be instantly destroyed based on public perception. Sometimes there’s a basis of fact that people can agree or disagree about the severity of the response. Too often a regular person is besmirched for simply being in the wrong place when the outrage mob turned its gaze their way.
Paul gets it both ways.
First he is uplifted through no accomplishment of his own, then sunk to the lowest depths with equal justification. The vagaries of modern life, and the social media that operates as our ersatz collective unconscious, shine a searing light that can both soothe and scorch.
Cage gets to do some of his celebrated shtick, crying and preening and howling and raging, sometimes within short order of each other. But it’s mostly a straight performance as an everyday person who becomes the subject of a very cruel experiment. We alternately feel great sympathy for Paul, as well as distaste and a shade of fear.
“Dream Scenario” wobbles a bit in the last act, seeming in a rush to its conclusion. There’s a slapdash subplot about dream technology that arrives and leaves quickly. One of his daughters experiences the dreams — it’s the first one we see, in fact — and Borgli fails to explore this, misplacing their relationship as a potential emotional touchstone.
There’s also seemingly no self-awareness on the part of those who condemn Paul, including an acquaintance (Dylan Baker) whose bougie dinners he had been craving an invite to. The one ambiguous figure is Tim Meadows as Brett, the university dean and his best friend, who doesn’t exactly defend Paul but also doesn’t wholly abandon him.
Though something of an incomplete movie, “Dream Scenario” still has much to recommend. It’s a caustically funny but also makes you think, and even cringe. It’s like an ugly reflection held up to us all, showing us the shabby way we treat each other based on whatever the fickle public mood is.
It’s our shared social nightmare.