This article contains minor Dream Scenario spoilers.
The most remarkable thing about Professor Paul Matthews is how unremarkable he is. The latest addition to Nicolas Cage’s oeuvre of oddballs and nuts is, in fact, impressively forgettable. So what makes him so curiously haunting after you’ve seen Dream Scenario? Cage himself is obviously a major factor. With a frequently perspiring bald cap around the temples, hunched shoulders, and a twitchy gaze that betrays the desperation of a lonely child in a middle-aged body, the veteran thespian has built a darkly amusing portrait of neediness which walks right up to the fine border between character and caricature, and gives it a frantic, pleading wave.
It’s a brilliant creation, and it is implemented in one of the cruelest comedies of the last couple of years. Because in spite of Paul Matthews’ lack of distinction, he is the man of your dreams…. whether you want him to be or not.
Written and directed by Norwegian filmmaker Kristoffer Borgli—and perhaps tellingly produced by the maestro of the miserable, Ari Aster, and A24—Dream Scenario follows a professor who is neither the best instructor at his university, nor the greatest thinker in his field, which has something to do with ants. It’s not entirely clear because whenever Paul talks about the book he never wrote, other characters’ eyes glaze over, leading him to trail off. He is, really, a mediocrity whose awkward smile and high-pitched laugh not once disguise deep reservoirs of passive aggression. Nonetheless, due to seeming magic, his exes begin dreaming about him decades later. Then his students. And finally strangers on the street, whether they live in his quiet collegiate town or all the way in Paris. At last everyone is thinking about him!
Even his daughter Sophie (Lily Bird) starts dreaming about the old man, although he seems to ignore the fact that her dreams involve him standing passively by as she is sucked into the sky. The only person who isn’t sharing in the phenomenon is the one soul who really knows Paul’s worth, his highly present and patient wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson). It is also Janet who warns him to not pursue talking to people about these dreams or seeking it as some form of validation.
So of course he immediately takes an interview on the nightly news to confirm, yes, you fine people are dreaming about me. He also is happy to postpone classroom lectures so students can get selfies with the prof. Heck, he even agrees to be flown to New York City to discuss what he thinks is a book deal. Instead a scuzzy publicist (Michael Cera) just wants to use his dream powers to sell Sprite. It’s a deliciously bizarre setup that happily bides its time before the worm begins to turn: How will this same hapless nobody react when these strangers’ dreams of him turn to nightmares?
The macabre, evil genius of Dream Scenario is it invites the audience to pass judgment on poor Paul Matthews’ soul, as if we were members of the social media peanut gallery who will swing wildly from adoring a dude in a dad sweater one day to loathing him the next, depending solely on the time of the week. Did Paul invite or in some way summon the bad juju that is to come? The answer remains satisfyingly elusive due to Cage’s choices.
Paul is a family man who loves his wife and cares about his daughters, but in Cage’s hands, he’s also a character who seems ill-fitted in his own skin. There is a pitiful overeagerness for validation from others in his searching eyes; and his voice is always rising due to some new anxiety or indignation. Either way, it is never joy that animates him. Even when he is with people who care about him, he is ill at ease. Yet when he meets an ex and discovers she is dreaming of him, he is excited, not because he is in love with her, but because, someone, somewhere, out there cares.
There is thus an Old Testament malevolence to his journey, where like Job, he is accursed to lose everything for seemingly no good reason. He is punished, ceaselessly and for nothing, but like all other congregates in our modern religion of bad faith skepticism, we are invited to diagnose an imperfection that justifies his suffering. He threw a temper tantrum in that one scene, so is he truly innocent? He acts harmless, but folks dream of him passively watching their misfortune, so perhaps his fecklessness is to blame? It is an enigma inside a mystery.
In the end, Dream Scenario is a Kafkaesque nightmare tailor-made for our social media world. Sometimes, folks are transformed into celebrities for the most inexplicable or baffling of reasons, and they can just as quickly be turned into something more sinister. If the internet picks you to be it, what can you really do to stop the digital train from running you over? Borgli therefore outlines every mundane activity that could be ruined for a family man or (ahem) college professor as neighbors and students begin to suspect Paul’s Freddy Krueger. There isn’t a glee, per se, in Paul’s compounding miseries, but the joy of the movie comes from stewing in Paul’s discomfort.
It is again Cage’s performance that provides the cartilage and connective tissue between the picture’s varied and aloof ideas. A more vain or timid actor might court too much audience sympathy and conjure a character so sympathetic that Dream Scenario turns into tragedy. A generally comedic performance, however, would make a farce out of the ugly surreal truth awaiting Paul Matthews’ journey.
Cage walks a tightrope, layering a sad sack with just enough unrealized mania beneath those dorky glasses and gray whiskers to cause the viewer to pause. Like any other stranger who becomes internet famous, we never fully get inside Paul’s head, even when we see his dreams. We’re left to reach our own verdict on a man who spent a lifetime doing nothing. It is other people’s projections that define his story and seal his fate. Cage just makes us complicit in the daydream.
Dream Scenario is in limited release in the U.S. and UK now and opens wide on Wednesday, Nov. 22.