While watching Kristoffer Borgli’s new film, Dream Scenario, I spent a good amount of time thinking about a completely different movie, Disney’s Cinderella (the original animated film, not blasphemous remake #410). Specifically my mind keyed in on one of the better songs from the flick, “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes.” It kept cropping up for me because most of the dark humor in this project pretty much follows that somewhat aspirational title, taking it in fairly unexpected directions, most of which work really well as both entertainment and cautionary tale.
The concept for the story is in itself straightforward and simple. What if everyone was suddenly dreaming about you? The complexity comes from the people involved, the aftermath of the strange incident, and the potential culpability of both the subject and society writ large. Suffice to say, something as mundane as the fantasies our brains concoct as we sleep can have an array of narrative possibilities.
Thankfully, Nicolas Cage is here to guide this work as only he can. Appearing in his seventh film this year, this feature sees him much more subdued than his other output for 2023, but no less engaging and committed to the conceit. He plays Paul Matthews, a middle-aged biology professor and all-around regular guy. He’s happily married (to Julianne Nicholson) with two daughters (Lily Bird and Jessica Clement), has a good job, and all his basic needs are met. He’s a little frustrated that his career has likely peaked and that his academic pursuits are stagnant (a former colleague played by Paula Boudreau is planning to publish a study based on his theories, and using a term he coined, without crediting him, which will make him look like a plagiarist if and when he’s able to write a book on the subject), but on the whole his life is a good one.
When he learns that he’s suddenly been appearing as a figure in other people’s dreams, including total strangers, he’s naturally taken aback. When the story makes local news, he becomes an overnight viral sensation. Still, he’s troubled when he learns the role he plays as everyone’s simulacrum. He does nothing. He’s completely passive, hardly saying a word, just walking through the foreground while the actual events of the dream take place. Whether it’s a disaster fantasy or a pleasant bit of escapism, Paul is just… there.
As is made very apparent, this is a reflection of his real life. He’s an everyday person, doing his job, enjoying his hobbies, and loving his family. He doesn’t seek out special treatment or attention, but like anyone else he does hope for validation and acknowledgement when he does well. So to have the entire world dream of him as a non-entity only reinforces his ennui, especially because he can’t explain or control it.
The satire gets kicked up a notch in the second act, with Paul being recruited by a public relations firm that wants to capitalize on his flavor-of-the-month success. The team is led by Trent, played by Michael Cera, a complete shyster and opportunist, looking for the quickest way to profit off of something he has neither created nor does he understand, utterly ignoring Paul’s only true desire to eventually publish his book. However, Paul is willing to at least explore options, both for the temporary fame it might win him, and also because Trent’s assistant Molly (Dylan Gelula) is the first person to mention dreaming about him in anything other than a milquetoast manner.
In fact, her dreams are deeply erotic, to the point that she asks Paul to help her reenact one, with the understanding that he’s married and will not commit an infidelity. This clues the audience into the eventual dark turn, as the observant viewer will notice that there’s some kind of connection between Paul’s mood or outlook and the content of the dreams. His sudden time in the spotlight led to some rekindling playfulness in his marriage, and right after that Molly started having sex dreams about him. When the erstwhile colleague goes ahead with her publish and gains accolades for Paul’s unrecognized work, he becomes angry and bitter. This translates in turn to everyone having scary, violent nightmares at his hand. This is what I meant by the Cinderella flashbacks. Completely without his knowledge or consent, Paul’s heart is making a wish that manifests in the world’s unconscious state. Within a few days he’s gone from kookie celebrity to complete pariah, as no one is comfortable being around him anymore, and everyone associates the imagined acts in their sleep as actual assaults on his part, even though no one is aware of any thematic links and Paul has literally not done anything to anyone.
A lot of this stuff is top notch. Cage rolls with every change like it’s second nature, mostly because for him it probably is. He’s made his entire living for the last 30 years playing eccentric characters, showing more range than pretty much any actor out there, because he’s willing to go all out, no matter how strange the demands of the story may be. It gets to the point that even in a relatively sane role, supporting players like Tim Meadows and Dylan Baker do all they can just to keep up with his energy.
And not for nothing, but Borgli’s got a hell of a creative eye for how this strangeness gets executed. The various dream sequences are perfectly staged bits of nonsense with differing levels of levity and danger depending on the needs of the moment. There’s just something so delightfully eerie about the image of Nicolas Cage, wearing a bald cap and a puffy jacket, just wandering through a cafeteria during a devastating earthquake, or standing idly by as a masked serial killer chases down his prey, or nonchalantly sweeping his deck as his daughter literally floats away. I’ll often criticize an actor’s performance, especially in prestige fare, if I see the actor more than the character. But in a situation like this, who else but Nicolas Cage could pull it off? The fact that it’s him makes it all the more odd, and oddly believable, and in this particular case it’s needed because Paul is by design a blank slate of a character. Borgli understands this, and thus leans in to the fact that we’re going to project an entire universe of outcomes and behaviors onto him because it’s Cage playing him.
Where the film started to lose me, however, was right after the midway point. There’s a moment where the darkness goes from being satirical and funny to feeling mean-spirited, and by the third act you can see the wheels start to come off. This is mostly due to the dreams ending for Paul, which should be a bit of relief where we see him rebuild his life, but the focus shifts from the character to an extension of the social commentary that just didn’t work for me. This follows alongside the somewhat overwrought throughline metaphor of zebras camouflaging with each other that Paul tries to introduce several times. It’s meant to pose the question of whether it’s better to stand out or blend into the crowd, but it gets lost in the proverbial shuffle. Things started off very strong, but by the end I got the sensation that Borgli was trying to do his best impression of a Charlie Kaufman story but couldn’t quite hold it together.
That doesn’t stop the film from being largely enjoyable and an intriguing think piece. In a way, the disjointed nature might actually be quite fitting. We’ve all had dreams, vivid ones even, that turn on a dime and go in a completely different direction. Sometimes we even try to right the narrative ship in our own subconscious through a bit of lucid control, but often it doesn’t work, and when we awaken, what little we remember is confused and unfocused. So if Borgli’s breakthrough winds up falling into some of those unintentional traps, we can scarcely be mad about it. We just hope the next dream is even more exciting.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s the weirdest dream you ever had? How many monkeys were there? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!