I sometimes suspect that Nicolas Cage has such a prolific career that if you look closely enough, he may show up in your family’s home videos. While his chronic inability to turn down acting work (largely motivated need to pay down some insane debt$) has resulted in a glut of subpar dreck that may have caused the legendary actor to drop down a few rungs on the A-list, it was has also resulted in some fascinating and eclectic films that have earned both cult adoration and critical praise. Count me in for the latter as I belatedly discovered Dream Scenario, one of the most fascinating and original films of 2023.
Mild-mannered and generally unremarkable biology professor Paul Matthews (Cage) has suddenly become one of the most famous people on the planet. Not for any particular personal or professional achievement, but due to his likeness making unexplained cameos in the dreams of complete strangers all over the world.
With his biology class now overbooked and brands tripping over each other to work with him via his new publicist Trent (Michael Cera), Paul decides to use his newfound fame to boost his career and get his long-planned, but unwritten book into the hands of publishers.
But the dream sours as Paul’s dream cameos suddenly become nightmares as his likeness begins doing horrible things: murder, rape, you name it. With the walls of cancel culture slowly closing in on him and his family, Paul mulls over whether to push back or embrace his new “nightmare man” cult-status (he’s really big in France).
I suspect most of the projects Cage takes on these days are tailored to his persona in some way (The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being a particularly extreme meta example). Paul is a pretty average guy in most respects, but with noticeable Cage-isms bubbling to the surface with noticeable frequency. This might normally be a drawback, but the film’s Norwegian director Kristoffer Borgli wields it to the film’s advantage within the context of a man slowly turning the world against him, albeit indirectly.
The story is ultimately a fable on the intoxicating peaks and noxious valleys of modern fame. Almost anyone can go viral these days, often for just being in the right place at the right time. The sudden rush of recognition and attention can be a potent steroid, but the increased spotlight means the slightest mistake or misinterpretation will be used against you thereby forcing a retreat from polite society.
Of course, the result of being canceled by the mainstream is a passionate cult of defenders, some out of genuine fandom, others out of pure contrarianism (the enemy of my enemy in my friend, after all). Maybe people aren’t so much canceled as simply renewed on more niche outlets.
The film is also slickly directed, with starkly-rendered cinematography and production design that capably disguise Ontario as Massachusetts and is aided by particularly clever edits and transitions that enhance the story being told rather than detract from it.
Dream Scenario is a stylish and oddly beguiling modern fantasy that is less content to merely probe our subconscious than violently elbow it in the ribs. It’s another jewel in the A24 crown, a studio that continues to prove that art and entertainment need not be mutually exclusive. Highly recommended.
Dream Scenario can currently be seen on all major VOD platforms