An meek college professor mysteriously appears in the dreams of people worldwide in Dream Scenario, which opens in Prague cinemas this weekend courtesy of Aerofilms. This stark film from writer-director Kristoffer Borgli (Sick of Myself) combines a fascinating premise with pungent satire on the cult of celebrity and cancel culture, and boasts one of the year’s best performances… but just doesn’t quite stick the landing.
Dream Scenario stars Nicolas Cage as Paul Matthews, college professor who opens the film listening to daughter Sophie (Lily Bird) explain a strange dream she had the previously evening. As objects fall from the sky and she is lifted into the air, her world seemingly crumbling around her, dad just casually observes while raking
“What, I didn’t do anything? Why didn’t I help?” Paul asks her, taking his dreamworld inaction as an inherent critique on his character. It can be disconcerting to be confronted with what seems to be someone else’s subconscious representation of you, a different you than the one you hope to put out in the world. But it is, after all, only a dream. Or is it?
The crux of Dream Scenario is that Cage’s mild-mannered professor suddenly begins to pop up in more people’s dreams: students, friends, colleagues… and even people who have never met him before. He becomes a real-life version of This Man, albeit one who has been identified… and turned into an overnight celebrity.
Spurred on by comments from his daughter Hannah (Jessica Clement) that frame boring old dad as suddenly somebody interesting, Paul begins to embrace his newfound status, conducting online interviews and meeting with a Hollywood agent played by Michael Cera. But wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson) is chilly on the attention, a feeling exacerbated when a stalker shows up in their bedroom.
And all the while, Paul is a little put off by his inaction in all these dreams: he’s always a detached observer who merely watches. But when he starts taking action in them, beginning with a dark and sexual encounter with Molly (Dylan Gelula), his public perception takes a drastic turn.
Dream Scenario does an incredible job of contrasting our perception of ourselves with the version of ourselves that exists in the minds of others. We often judge ourselves based on the compliments and critiques of others, but the versions of us that exist in their minds is not the real deal.
There’s a brilliant scene in which Cage’s professor attempts to confront a room full of students who he has violated in their dreams, using a form of cognitive behavioral therapy as he slowly steps closer to them. He is not the person who has violated them in their dreams, and they know this, and can choose how to react to his presence. But he also represents a collective imaginary threat that turns overwhelming.
Dream Scenario cannily observes celebrity and cancel culture during these scenes, identifying the inherent contradiction in judgments based on public perception, without dismissing the valid emotional reaction of those making the judgments. But it also seems to paint itself into a corner: after resolving its primary storyline in a sequence that feels like a dream – as Paul finally merges with his public dream persona – it runs out of interesting things to say.
The film’s final fifteen minutes, an epilogue of sorts that introduces a wholly new concept involving dream influencers played by Amber Midthunder and Noah Centineo, are its most divisive. There is a fitting conclusion for Paul Matthews, but not an especially interesting one.
Cage is known to make a lot of movies, and Dream Scenario was his sixth to release in 2023 following Butcher’s Crossing, Sympathy for the Devil, The Old Way, Renfield, and The Retirement Plan. He’s interesting in each of these film, but he’s something special in Dream Scenario, playing against his usual style and chewing through the raw insecurities that eat at the heart of this character in almost every line. It’s not a flashy role, but it ranks alongside Adaptation in the pantheon of all-time great Cage performances.
It helps that he’s working with a filmmaker in Borgli who has an especially tight grasp over the style and tone of his movie, but like his protagonist, largely remains an objective observer, and allows his cast to drive the narrative. Dream Scenario has popped up on many best-of 2023 lists, and deservedly so. But like the similarly incisive American Fiction, it’s missing the satisfying finale that could have turned this into one of the all-time greats.