Dream Scenario (A24, R)

For the past decade or so, it seems like Nicolas Cage has one Oscar-caliber performance in an Oscar-caliber film for every ten odd experiments or direct-to-digital dreck movies he participates in. Two years ago, Pig was that film, and I will always stand by my conviction that Cage was robbed of an Oscar nomination for that performance. Last year, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent acted as a meta comedy exploring Cage’s career and persona. Now, a spiritual trifecta is complete with director Kristoffer Borgli’s Dream Scenario, which in many ways is like a melding of the disparate tones of Pig and Talent. In my view, it’s not quite as indelible a film as Pig, but it’s damn close.

Cage plays Paul Matthews, a well-off but fairly humdrum biology professor who mysteriously starts appearing in several people’s dreams. First it’s his daughters and his students, then it’s random acquaintances, and pretty soon, thousands of strangers are reporting his starring role in their dreams. At first, he doesn’t really do or say much of anything in them. Borgli also edited the film, and he wisely starts by showing the dreams in more of a storybook fashion, with the dreamers narrating and explaining the situation to Paul. As dream-Paul becomes more sinister and terrifying, Borgli picks up the pace in terms of how, when, and how often we witness someone else’s dream, often to great comedic and dramatic effect.

The film is metaphorical in a number of different ways, chief among them in its commentary on social media and our sociopolitical moment. As people start to treat Paul like the villain he is in their sleeping heads, Dream Scenario turns into a true nightmare. Maybe we’d all like to go viral like Paul, but there is almost always an ugly side to novelty fame. Yes, the film tackles a kind of “cancel culture” because it shows the grievances the dreamers have with Paul to be obviously perceived slights rather than anything Paul actually did, but the commentary is much more nuanced than any one-sided political screed. What Borgli’s script, direction, and editing balance out so well is his desire to allow us as an audience to come to our own conclusions, and to think more deeply about the social situations all around us by putting ourselves in Paul’s shoes.

With all of this thematic work going on, it’s a wonder the film still feels so cozy, so lived-in, so narrowly-focused (in a good way). Though we travel with Paul to his hilarious meeting with publicity firm “Thoughts?” and witness pretty much every way his strange predicament could be used for something less than positive in broader society, we stay with Paul and his family the entire time. Like American Fiction, another fantastic exploration of current social climates premiering this awards season, none of Dream Scenario’s larger satirical ambitions ever eclipse the man-versus-self story at its center. I won’t spoil the ending of course, but what others may interpret as anticlimactic I saw as completely cathartic and totally earned, in the sense that it’s really all about Paul. He is the bewildered bystander in all of us. | George Napper

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