Like a dream that abruptly changes its setting, Dream Scenario shifts into something else entirely in its second half. Writer-director Kristoffer Borgli’s dark comedy starts off in the surrealist mode of Charlie Kaufman or Michel Gondry, then morphs into a far more pedestrian satire that could’ve been made by some podcaster who is “just asking questions.” Borgli has made the cinematic equivalent of a flying dream that suddenly changes into one where you’re simply at your desk, updating cells in an Excel spreadsheet. It’s a profound waste of a great concept, especially given that it all hinges upon a marvelously cringe-inducing performance by Nicolas Cage.
The Oscar-winning actor dons a bald cap and pitches his voice into a higher, more nasal register to play Paul Matthews, a college professor who bores his students and annoys his kids. The quarter-zip-wearing evolutionary biologist is nondescript at best and awkward at worst, the kind of guy you’d only remember for an unfunny joke he attempted to make—and then was the only person in the room to laugh at. Yet Paul is actually desperate for attention, and when he finally gets it, it isn’t from the book he’s been meaning to write his entire academic career but just hasn’t gotten around to yet.
Instead, this otherwise unremarkable man has started appearing in the dreams of people around the world, from his own family members and random acquaintances to total strangers. “We’re not even the type of people that like attention,” says his wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson), but it’s clear that Paul is enjoying his new viral celebrity, even if he doesn’t exactly know how to respond to it (other than awkwardly). As his role in people’s dreams change, the public response shifts as well, putting Paul and his family into unfamiliar territory.
In its first half, Dream Scenario is infinitely engrossing and blackly comic as it introduces the idea of what would happen if a single person started making cameos in millions of dreams. Borgli’s script mines humor from the intellectual to the scatalogical; an ill-timed fart probably got the biggest laugh from me, but it’s also specific in its jokes about academia. Dream Scenario raises questions about what it means for that individual as well as for how everyone else reacts to him, from strangers who can’t figure out where they know him from to a pair of millennial marketers (Michael Cera and Kate Berlant) who see opportunity—and dollar signs—in his newfound fame. When Dream Scenario evolves into a commentary on cancel culture, it’s unclear what the film is actually trying to say about the phenomenon and its impact on people’s lives.
Part of the issue lies in Paul as a character and how Borgli intends the audience to react to him. Is he an average but good man who is simply misunderstood by the masses, or has his innate neediness and “assholeness” (as his wife puts it) curdled into something even worse with fame as a catalyst? The final scene points toward Borgli’s efforts to have us ultimately sympathize with Paul, but the preceding 100 minutes have created a picture of man who doesn’t really deserve that reaction from the viewer.
Dream Scenario’s thematic muddling is at odds with its otherwise careful craft, even beyond the performance from Cage that is in line with other recent gems in his filmography like Mandy and Pig. The film is thoughtfully constructed with Borgli (who also serves as the editor) making abrupt cuts that feel propulsive rather than jarring, and he uses audio in fascinating ways, particularly in a scene with a recorded conversation. Interiors by production designer Zosia Mackenzie (Infinity Pool, Come to Daddy) are modern and lived-in, especially Paul and Janet’s home, which is almost distractingly lovely.
If Dream Scenario didn’t evince such potential in its concept, performances, and craft, its thematic issues and second-half problems wouldn’t sting quite so badly. At this point, viewers largely expect most late-period Cage movies to suck, but Dream Scenario’s pedigree made it look like it would be one of the good ones, like the aforementioned Pig or Mandy, pointing to his earlier, bold choices in both the films he made and what he brought to them. Yet despite Cage’s best efforts, Dream Scenario’s promising beginning soon sours into something far more conventional and less interesting.
“Dream Scenario” is in theaters Friday.