Dream Scenario: Collective Nonconscious, by Scott Nye
Nicolas Cage has a problem. I am not referring, here, to Paul Matthews, the character he plays in the new film Dream Scenario, though we’ll get to him in short order. I mean the uber-prolific movie star whose career has wavered from periods of near-peerless success to a joke with more – far more – misses than hits. Arguably, with six films in release this year, his hit-to-miss ratio is wider than ever. Nevertheless, a new generation of films and filmmakers has latched onto him (in films like Mandy, Color Out of Space, and Pig), reminding alternative audiences of his enduring appeal and still-razor-sharp talent. With those have come star-flattering roles like Renfield, Sympathy for the Devil, and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, where the selling point revolves around Cage as an icon, or even a meme.
Dream Scenario, written and directed by Kristoffer Borgli, exists at the convergence of those two points. Paul is in most respects an ordinary man – he’s a biology professor; he has a loving wife, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), and two children, Sophie (Lily Bird) and Hannah (Jessica Clement); he never made the mark on the world he hoped he would when he was younger. Lately he’s been appearing in people’s dreams. It’s odd at first, for his daughter and some of his students to mention it. Then he finds out strangers are also dreaming about him. That’s when things really start to blow up. Oh, and he’s played by Nicolas Cage.
The necessity of a star in this role is a double-edged sword. To the audience, it removes any chance of him every being ordinary. But we’ll also more quickly associate the way he’s recognized with his decades of celebrity. Cage can walk that line, and has before, in films like Adaptation, The Family Man, The Weather Man, and decidedly not The Wicker Man. For all of the manic energy for which he is often associated, he can ground that in real, everyday neuroses that audiences can identify with. In an early pair of scenes between Paul and an ex-girlfriend (who, wouldn’t you know it, has been dreaming about him), Cage is brilliant at playing both the flattery he feels at this long-lost love thinking of him and also the reticence to fully give himself over given that he is, you know, happily married and all.
The film, though, is much more one-note than Cage can fully redeem. Every beat for the character comes back to his frustration over lack of recognition, which naturally leads him to overindulge the recognition he’s now receiving. Inevitably, too, the dreams turn. Rather than being a passive, even calming presence in them, the dream Paul becomes violent and menacing. Those who dream of him turn on him, and those who don’t aren’t willing to risk association.
Mightn’t the film have something to say about “cancel culture”? It sure tries. The dreams turn nasty only after Paul has a consensual, but awkward and regrettable, one-night stand with an assistant (Dylan Gelula) at the publicity firm he’s working with. With the dreams now manifesting as terrors, Paul’s celebrity opportunities turn from potential meetings with Obama to aggrieved-men outlets like Joe Rogan and Tucker Carlson. But if it’s equating the process whereby women seek justice for sexual assault and harassment with a scenario that is genuinely all in a fantasy realm, or scuttling the fallout from sexual assault under he-said/she-said misunderstandings, it’s not only insensitive, but insulting and incurious. And for the purposes of drama, it’s terribly rote and predictable.
The whole affair is too intriguing an idea to disregard, but too little developed to invest in. Its natural form would be a five-minute side story someone tells in a Woody Allen movie, one of those concepts he’d come up with and love but recognize its limitations. Dream Scenario is too convinced of its own ingenuity to see where its walls are and expand its vision accordingly.