Back in the mid-2000s, there was an Internet phenomenon called “Ever Dream This Man?” in which thousands of strangers around the globe claimed to collectively dream of the same unassuming, balding man, and while Kristoffer Borgli’s new film Dream Scenario makes no direct allusions to that strange occurrence, the connections are pretty undeniable. Pointed to at the time as everything from proof of the collective unconscious to mass susceptibility to outside stimuli to far more dubious claims of astral projection, the story faded into obscurity once it was discovered that the company hosting the website documenting the dream sightings was also a viral marketing firm. But a potent premise for a film it remains. In Dream Scenario, the unassuming balding man frequenting people’s dreams is played by Nicolas Cage, himself something of a perpetual Internet phenomenon, and what’s initially compelling about the idea is how free of agency or larger purpose these nighttime visits are. In his waking hours, Cage’s university professor Paul Matthews barely makes an impression on anyone, but have him innocently stroll through the dreams of thousands of people, not unlike a polite but uninvited party guest, and it’s notable.
It also hints at the film’s larger designs. Rather than take this in the direction of horror or broad comedy, Borgli presents Paul’s unique situation as an extended parable for celebrity in the 21st century, the single dumbest time to be infamous in history. Through no conscious effort on his part, Paul quickly becomes a public figure and capitalizes on his newfound fame by doing interviews on the local news, holding court in class where he’s peppered with questions he can’t answer, and, in the truest signifier of notoriety, inspires Halloween costumes. He’s even approached in public by ex-girlfriends looking to grab lunch and catch up — to the visible annoyance of his wife, Janet (Julianne Nicholson) — and approached by marketing firms to see if he can somehow integrate cans of Sprite into his dream cameos. And through it all, Paul’s head continues to swell. If people are constantly talking about him, then he must be objectively important, right? And even if he’s not actively involved in infiltrating people’s dreams, if people are happy about it, then why shouldn’t that reflect positively on him and open him up to new opportunities (including maybe meeting Obama or flirting with eager young women more than half his age)? But then that does introduce the question: if Paul is reaping the benefits of sweet dreams, what happens when his bedtime visits start to take on less desirable qualities?
It’s here that Dream Scenario runs into difficulties. After “Paul” starts to become more of an active, aggressive participant in people’s dreams — becoming the antagonist in nightmares about sexual assault and murder — he’s quickly labeled a cultural pariah. He becomes unwelcome in public spaces, disinvited from friendly gatherings, and viewed with suspicion by everyone he encounters. That the real Paul has no actual control over how his dream persona behaves is irrelevant. Despite his justifiable claims of innocence, he’s become the latest face of male impropriety and accordingly goes through stages of being canceled (that Cage’s appearance in the film resembles that of disgraced comedian Louis CK is likely a coincidence, but one that’s difficult to look past once the similarities start to pile up). Dream Scenario can’t help but tie the shame cycle and public humiliation to real world agitators and media outlets — e.g. requests to appear on Tucker Carlson’s and Joe Rogan’s shows, nods to a thriving alt-right fanbase online, an offer of a public speaking tour in France, etc. — yet it remains an imperfect metaphor; not that it stops the film from doubling and even tripling down on it. If Paul is truly an innocent being subjected to a witch hunt for “thought crimes” (the students on his college campus are presented as the most vocally outraged at his mere existence), then why does the sudden dark turn in his dream behavior coincide with a squirm-inducing, attempted seduction of a young marketing assistant (Dylan Gelula)? And if the film is treating the character as a cautionary tale to illustrate the perils of public condemnation and shunning, then why are Paul’s attempts to reclaim his public life so depressingly familiar, including lashing out at his accusers, painting himself as the victim, and offering up self-serving apologies that cynically speak to his “lived experiences”?
In Cage, we have an actor whose commitment to a role has never been called into question — even when appearing in direct-to-rental dross — but following his muse isn’t always especially constructive. Here, the actor emphasizes the character’s middle-aged lack of potency and ineffectual qualities as a husband, father, and academic by shaving down his hair to an unflattering horseshoe hairstyle and employing a reedy, impotent voice — it sounds like the cliched impersonation of a white guy. It’s such a strenuous depiction of emasculation from the jump that there is nowhere to go with the performance; once it’s established that Paul took his wife’s last name in marriage and that he passes gas when aroused, the performance becomes a series of mortifying tendencies all meant to reinforce what a born loser the character is. But what’s most frustrating about the film is how passive it is, with Paul practically a passenger in his own life story. Misfortunes just continuously happen to him while innocent misunderstandings are twisted against him. For all its high-concept aspirations, Dream Scenario ends up playing like a relatively common tale of victimization and self-pity.
Borgli has more success in conveying the film’s oneiric qualities. It was shot on 16 mm with warm, soft lighting, which, when played against the film’s naturalistic set dressing and costumes, allows for the line between dreams and reality to continuously blur. Dream logic is something of an oxymoron, but the film recognizes how dreams often seem to end prematurely, our recollections of them tapering off after a single memorable element, or feature but a handful of heightened qualities while being otherwise indistinguishable from our waking lives. And one can even argue Paul’s entire predicament adheres to a sort of loose, inconsistent logic if one were inclined to view the entire film as a nightmare — although that the film is still trying to earn cheap points against social media influencers in its closing moments doesn’t really engender that charitable of an interpretation. Ultimately, Dream Scenario is predicated on too modest an idea that simply isn’t sturdy enough to support the film’s hefty allegorical ambitions.
DIRECTOR: Kristoffer Borgli; CAST: Nicolas Cage, Julianne Nicholson, Lily Bird, Jessica Clement; DISTRIBUTOR: A24; IN THEATERS: November 22; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 40 min.