Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage) has a pretty great, if not uneventful life, but he yearns for more. His wants aren’t completely out of bounds. He wants recognition, respect and the adoration of his family, it’s not unreasonable to think about. The problem isn’t Paul’s wishes, but instead the ways he goes about fulfilling them.
Kristoffer Borgli’s third feature film, Dream Scenario follows Cage’s character as he goes from a college professor to an overnight sensation, to villainy. On one hand, it can be said the film is about cancel culture, or the instability of the hive mind. On the other hand, it can be seen as an excellent critique of white, male entitlement and the rage they display in the absence of these entitlements. The answer is a little bit of everything, all of the time and it both helps and harms the narrative.
Life Is but a Dream Scenario
With Kristoffer Borgli involved, the film will be a darkly comedic drama and he delivers on the premise beautifully. There were laugh-out-loud moments, followed by chilling horror elements. When Ari Aster appeared on the screen as a producer, several audience members exhaled, “Oh yeah, that makes sense.” Borgli finds a way to pay homage to the clear influence in Aster’s work. Dream Scenario has a muted tone to it, not unlike Hereditary. It acts as a red herring, making the audience believe they are in a normal location where normal things happen normally. They are wrong.
A phenomena comes out of nowhere where Paul Matthews – evolutionary ant expert and future Pym innovator, perhaps – suddenly appears in everyone’s dreams. It’s in a passive role where he’s a bystander, and sometimes even seen as a congenial presence. The dreams vary between who has them and even the nature of Paul’s involvement. People start to take notice and after failing to get academic recognition using his own prowess, Paul sees the strange incident as an opportunity to get his foot in the door.
He takes a meeting with a PR company called “Thoughts” which plasters its logo in alternating pastel colors on every screen and on nearly every wall. While there he runs into Molly (Dylan Gelula) whose version of the dream is shockingly different from the others and one that Paul is anxious to learn more about. He rides the highlife when suddenly his position in the dreams change, turning them into nightmares.
Perchance To Dream Scenario
Thoughts is every hybrid incubator, PR firm, corporate culture, gone in 60 seconds agency that anyone can think of. It has the fast talking leader in Trent (Michael Cera with the most authentically terrible facial hair), the sidekick who knows everyone and can connect you with anyone, Mary (Kate Berlant) and the young apprentice, Molly.
There’s an interesting conversation the group has that gives definition to Dream Scenario in a really accessible way. Paul says that he’s not trying to be known for his dreams, but instead for his book (which he has yet to write). He doesn’t want the dreams to be the only thing in his Wiki entry. Trent tries politely to tell him that the only reason people know about him is because of the dreams, but promises to pivot back towards what Paul wants.
The exploration of entitlement in the film has a deep, longing quality to it. When we meet Paul, he seems settled. He has a loving wife, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), and two beautiful daughters, Hannah (Jessica Clement) and Sophie (Lily Bird). He’s a tenured professor at a prestigious university and gives lectures on the animal kingdom. Paul learns that a former colleague will also publish a paper based on what he believes is his idea.
Despite all of his practices to stay calm and collected, he effectively loses his cool and can’t quite recover. This becomes a throughline in the film – Paul’s solipsism versus Paul’s reality. There’s something relatable about that, at least to a point. We’ve all had moments where we wondered what we would do in extreme scenarios. How would we handle uncomfortable moments? With grace and style, or with awkwardness and nervous toots?
Cage does a wonderful job of exposing this vulnerability throughout the film, and an even better job of constantly denying it. The separation from Paul begins here, with his lack of empathy. He’s so concerned with what’s happening to him, that he doesn’t stop to think about the ways he openly sabotages himself. This is why the film can’t fully be a cautionary tale on cancel culture: because Paul acts as his own victim.
When put to the wire people will show up in one of two ways: they will better themselves by trying to better others, or they will spiral into a madness of their own making. Paul’s inability to see reason but complete ability to double down on some terrible decisions really paints a picture of who Paul is and was even before the events in the film.
As mentioned before, Borgli understands how to mix dark humor and drama, but he’s not necessarily adept at heart, nor should he be. If Dream Scenario is an anti-fairy tale, then the absence of duality makes sense. In the film, the duality of Paul isn’t necessarily divided between good and evil, but rather tolerable and intolerable. We know he loves his wife and children, but we also know he feels like he deserves more.
There are very few flaws with the film, but we'd be remiss if we didn’t mention just how packed the film is. From the changes in Paul’s dreams to his attempts to recreate one, Dream Scenario already has a lot to work with. Then a co-worker of Janet’s whom Paul doesn't like enters the picture. A trip to France, a new product called Norio and a cognitive behavioral therapy session gone awry are all added to the film at the last minute. It causes a disservice because we would have liked any of those situations fleshed out more.
In a film where the science gets sort of swept under the rug, it’s important to show a key amount of detail in one of the side plots. Norio was especially interesting, but treated fully as a joke, though we see it used for a pivotal scene in the film. One that in Paul’s mind is sweet, and in the viewer’s mind is maybe not the best look.
Dream Scenario is a fever dream of a movie. Think Joan is Awful meets Beau is Afraid with a touch of Smoking Causes Coughing. There is an irreverence to it that’s fun and exciting to watch. Dylan Gelula gives a career performance and Nic Cage is unstoppable. Ultimately we recommend it, though viewers who like to explore deeper meanings, may be left wanting near the end. In any case, it’s a fantastic film to watch in a theater with a crowd ready to have a good time.
Dream Scenario will debut in theaters Friday, November 10th. We’ve got the latest on movies in theaters now.
Score: 7.5/10 SPECS