When asked about his fame and his status in being such a meme-worthy actor, Nicolas Cage shared an interesting story. He talked about how he once stumbled on a viral video of himself on the Internet. It was a compilation of some of his craziest performances throughout his career. I think most of us have seen it… dozens of times. It is called “Nicolas Cage Losing His Shit.” As funny and entertaining as it is, Cage mentions the powerlessness of not being able to do anything about it.
For Cage, fame can feel like gambling; it can feel great when you win, but it feels sad on a profound level when you lose, when the odds turn against you. But Nicolas Cage is a movie star, and the character he plays in this film is the exact opposite of what you would call a star. Paul Matthews never asked for any attention. He’s just a professor who never really made it big, never truly accomplished what he wanted. Never had time to write his book. He doesn’t do much of anything, really.
Then one day, without his control, without his consent, Paul begins to appear in everyone’s dreams. Literally everyone’s. Through a series of bizarre, intrusive dream sequences, writer/director Kristoffer Borgli taps into our inherent desire to laugh when we see Nicolas Cage just being himself on screen. Show us Nicolas Cage contemplating a mushroom and we laugh. Show us a hallway and Nicolas Cage slowly peeking around the corner and it’s funny. It’s funny even when he’s not doing anything. Of all the recent films that try to capitalize on Cage’s meme energy, this one nails how easy it is for us to laugh and applaud him.
That’s how the dreams start off. Paul is in it, but he’s just… there. Not doing anything. Suddenly, every living person on Earth feels like they have a connection to this man, some who have never met him before. And just like that, Paul becomes an overnight sensation. But Borgli’s script and Cage’s performance remind us that this is not only weird, but it feels wrong. Paul has no choice in the matter, he must reluctantly accept his new circumstance. This results in an endless barrage of awkward encounters and absurd conversation. The delivery is so direct, so matter-of-factly, they are some of the funniest scenes in any film this year. Though this can result in the film feeling like a series of meandering sequences, there is too much talent on screen to ignore, from Cage’s brilliant comedic timing to Borgli’s insistence in hanging on the uncanny and the awkwardness.
But soon, just as inexplicably as Paul’s arrival in everyone’s minds, the dreams become nightmares, and Paul becomes responsible for actions he never actually committed. It is here where Dream Scenario slowly morphs into an exploration of unwanted fame, groupthink, and yes, cancel culture. It can admittedly tread a slippery slope at times. Borgli refers to real professors who have faced accusations as inspiration for his film, but it’s hard to compare what those real professors might have done with Paul’s forced powerlessness. Where the film does make a firm footing on, thanks to Cage’s interpretations, is a showcase of how fickle people can be. They love you one day, and the next day they turn on you and want you erased. The real outrage and tragedy of it all is most people don’t even know the real Paul Matthews; they only know the murderous Paul from their nightmares. Still, that is the role he is forced to take, as Cage channels some of Michael Stuhlbarg from A Serious Man, as a man who sees the world around him falling apart and he can’t make sense of it all.
As Dream Scenario finds a way to conclude, Borgli veers into a (possibly) divisive third act, with a societal gag that looks like it’s ripped right out of a South Park episode. For a boring, somewhat pathetic man bothered by his perceived passiveness, he is forced to become a passive observer of every event in his life. It’s a terrifying and crushingly sad epiphany that Borgli successfully captures in his writing and directing.
Some of Cage’s recent works have been his most existential. In Pig, he explores a man reluctantly returning to an industry that doesn’t truly see him. In The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, he reckons with his image and whether he can ever be taken seriously and be true to himself without always having to ham up a persona. But Dream Scenario takes those anxieties to a more surreal and alarming level, because it’s a film about consequences. Borgli is solely interested in how Paul feels about this whole ordeal and making the audience understand what it’s like to be suddenly judged for something that’s not representative of you.
The result is a funny, accurate, and troubling portrayal of our fickle culture for celebrities today. As gut-bustingly hilarious as it is, it is undeniably a cautionary tale on how easily we fabricate things in our minds and transform them into reality when enough people believe in it.
Cage described Dream Scenario as one of the few rare scripts that were the best he’s ever read, where he instantly knew he had to be a part of the project. From the very first scene to the last, you can see his passion for the subject matter and his empathy for Paul. In a long career full of unorthodox titles and creative choices, Nicolas Cage has never been funnier and more heartbreaking than he is here.
This review is from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. A24 will release Dream Scenario in theaters on November 10.