Nicolas Cage has always been a weird but captivating screen presence. Once people stopped trying to make him a bland action leading man, his talent has truly come to the fore. But unlike some other quirky actors—Christopher Walken for years; Jeff Goldblum more recently—who just get by on their familiar mannerisms, Cage continually tries new and different characters. Naturally he brings his trademark Cageyness to everything, but is recent filmography is supremely varied. From the brutal rage-filled Mandy to grizzled loner in Pig, to Count Dracula himself in Renfield. In Dream Scenario, Cage gives another outstanding performance playing one of his least likely characters.
Norwegian writer-director Kristoffer Borgli’s latest follows 2022’s Sick of Myself, a nasty satire about fame in the vapid socialite scene. Here, he gives us the altogether more fantastical premise of shared dreams and instant, unearned fame, notoriety, hatred, and oblivion. Cage plays Paul Matthews, a college professor, husband, and father who longs for more recognition in his chosen field. A nice enough guy full of the all-too common 2023 problem of middle-class man-anger. Suddenly, he finds himself the center of a bizarre phenomenon wherein he is present in everybody’s dreams. Doesn’t matter the dream, doesn’t matter if the dreamer has ever met him before, he’s just there. Though outwardly uninterested in this instant pseudo-stardom, Paul begins to relish the recognition that comes along with being the man of everyone’s literal dreams.
Paul’s wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson) has zero interest in any of this. She wants Paul to just ignore it, but as more and more people want to figure out some way to monetize him, he lets all the trappings go to his head. Finally people will take him seriously, finally he won’t be looked over. Unfortunately that’s right when Paul stops being a passerby—or sexual object—in the dreams and becomes the monster in everyone’s nightmares. What does that do to people? What does that do to the nightmare man?
It’s around this point in Dream Scenario that the central metaphor starts to break down for me. Paul starts to be much less the everyman and more just an a-hole who plays the victim. It feels very of-the-moment, surely, but ignores the kind of fantastical-meets-mundane elements that won me over early on. Not that Paul was ever particularly likeable, but it became much more a case of “Ugh, this effin’ guy” every time he did something. Maybe that’s the point, but it wasn’t what grabbed me early on. Despite the 100-minute runtime, it started to drag on at around the hour mark.
This is not to say it’s not an interesting movie still, nor that Cage and the rest of the cast aren’t excellent. He is, and they are. Cage’s idiosyncrasies add such a weird layer to Paul Matthews, and Paul feels like he’s putting on socially acceptable masks to hide all of his many insecurities. Masking is, of course, quite common for those with autism. Overall, Cage plays such a great dingus with a mean streak. It’s his most best, assured performance since Adaptation.
Nicholson is superb as the most normal person in the movie, and you totally buy her struggle between loving this man and getting increasingly irritated with the whole situation. Their relationship needs to work for the movie to work, and it does by and large. Michael Cera and Kate Berlant play members of a digital marketing team who hope to represent Paul in something. As someone who works on the internet, their breed of trying to shoehorn products into whatever client they have hit very close to the mark. Tim Meadows has a smaller role as the dean of the college and Paul’s friend and I wish he had more to do because he’s terrific as always.
Dream Scenario has one of the best and freshest premises I’ve seen in a movie in a while and while I didn’t need it to go absolutely wild in the third act like Ari Aster’s Beau Is Afraid or anything, it felt like it had the opposite problem and petered out. (Incidentally, Aster is a producer on Dream Scenario.) I wish I could have loved this movie outright, but it’s still a great showcase for one of Hollywood’s most reliably out-there actors and worth your time.