Dream Scenario has some fun with the collective unconscious, but it struggles to follow through on its delightful premise.
Few faces have burned deeper into the collective unconscious than Nicolas Cage’s. As an unusual but captivating star of many blockbusters, and the centerpiece of endless internet memes, Cage has persisted in the cultural zeitgeist in some form or another for several decades, even as his status as an A-list actor has fluctuated. He’s the perfect choice to lead Kristoffer Borgli’s Dream Scenario, a movie in which people around the world start to dream about the same person (played by Cage), who floats through some surreal landscape like a piece of mental detritus. After all, who among us hasn’t at one point or another idly pondered Nicolas Cage?
In Dream Scenario, Cage is no megastar. He’s a nebbishy biology professor named Paul Matthews, a balding chump who seems to blend into the background even when he’s at home eating dinner with his wife and kids. Clad in baggy slacks and a half-zip, he’s an alarming but amusing sight when he starts popping up in dreams, strolling by and giving a sheepish wave while otherwise playing no role in the reverie. It’s an incredibly compelling pitch for a movie, a low-key sci-fi scenario with a metatextual twist. But Borgli takes it in a depressingly mundane direction, squeezing a surreal fable into an all-too-contemporary take on the strictures of celebrity.
Given the unusual peaks and valleys of his career, Cage obviously understands the bizarre trappings of fame. That makes him Dream Scenario’s biggest asset, and he delivers a performance on par with his recent standout work in Pig and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. Paul first appears in his daughter’s dream, raking leaves and ignoring her as she’s pelted with mysterious hail. As the story progresses, he learns that other people—old flames, friends of friends, many of his students, even total strangers—are having similar experiences. Pictures of Paul’s face spread online like an old-school viral sensation, a more realistic version of the “This Man” meme that took off on the internet years ago.
It’s a delicious, fascinating notion, exploring not only the idea of a shared unconscious but also the ways in which the shared consciousness of being online might warp and change it. Paul’s initial guest roles in dreams feel spontaneous, but the more people hear about them, the more he transforms from a nonthreatening background actor into an active participant. At first, Paul hopes to leverage his fame toward publishing a long-gestating science book, but his dream-avatar soon becomes more frightening, scaring or even attacking people as they sleep. In a matter of weeks, Paul goes from a cheerful fad to an international figure of hate, while arguing that he has nothing to do with what goes on in people’s heads.
Cage has a firm grasp on just how cloyingly pathetic Paul can be, portraying his increasingly sweaty desperation as he scrambles to regain his dream persona’s original cutesiness. Paul’s timid wife, Janet (the always-strong Julianne Nicholson), quickly recognizes how ill-equipped he is for any sort of fame, but she’s not above using their marriage to advance professionally. Michael Cera swoops in for a very funny extended cameo as Trent, the head of a marketing firm called Thoughts? who imagines Paul as a subconscious pitchman who invades people’s dreams while holding a Sprite can. Meanwhile, Trent’s assistant, Molly (the wonderfully sardonic Dylan Gelula), confesses that Paul is an irrepressible Lothario in her dreams—something he struggles to match up to in real life.
These are all fitfully funny directions to take the premise in, but Borgli (a Norwegian director whose prior feature Sick of Myself is an acidly funny romp) can’t really pick a mode. Instead, Dream Scenario morphs from a Charlie Kaufman–esque cringe comedy into a simmering nightmare thriller, staging some genuinely unsettling hallucinations but failing to knit them into any larger narrative. Eventually, Paul turns to the sort of dark-web fame that many a “canceled” figure is drawn to, doing a book tour in France and trying to cash in on his own notoriety—a story direction that feels lazy and mundane. Cage is enough to keep Dream Scenario interesting, selling Paul’s mental unraveling with panache; he’s always been a performer who relishes dancing on the border between charismatic and unhinged, swinging between the two in a single line reading. But the movie fails to match that deftness of tone, settling into bland, unimaginative normality—a disappointing turn for such a vibrant concept.