Nicolas Cage fans view the Oscar-winning actor’s every new film as a veritable dream come true—a fact that Dream Scenario (in theaters Nov. 10) jokily leans into via its The Twilight Zone-y premise. Kristoffer Borgli’s sophomore feature (following 2022’s Sick of Myself) stars Cage as an educator who, for reasons neither he nor anyone else can explain, suddenly appears in random strangers’ dreams, thereby flipping the mild-mannered man’s life upside-down. What begins as an amusingly demented fantasy about ambition, fame, self-worth, and cancel culture, however, ultimately comes apart at the seams, even though a magnificent Cage prevents it from ever devolving into an outright nightmare.
Paul Matthews (Cage) is a tenured university professor who spends his days lecturing about animal and insect “adaptive strategies” and, in particular, zebras’ use of their distinctive stripes to blend in with the herd. Referred to as “boring” and “a remarkable nobody,” Paul’s own featureless persona is put to the test when, out of the blue, he starts materializing in others’ slumbering reveries. For Paul, who lacks the backbone to stand up to a former acquaintance who’s stealing his research, and who can’t earn a seat at his colleague Richard’s (Dylan Baker) coveted dinner-party table, this inexplicable turn of events is unnerving and exciting. A balding, bearded, and bespectacled intellectual who’s loved by his wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson), tolerated by his teenage daughters Hannah (Jessica Clement) and Sophie (Lily Bird), and indifferently stomached by his students, Paul is a middle management-grade loser, and thus enthusiastically embraces his newfound celebrity.
Still, there’s something strange about Paul’s predicament: namely, in everyone’s dreams, he’s merely an observer as the dreamer fends off fiends or copes with calamity. As in real life, Paul is a passive nothing, and Dream Scenario gets early humorous mileage out of Cage’s flustered acclimation to this bizarre state of affairs. His cheery grins and chipper banter always faintly clumsy and forced, as if they were designed to keep his simmering anger and hurt at bay, Paul is the definition of awkward. Nonetheless, he does his best to embrace his unexpected popularity, posing for photos, appearing on TV news broadcasts, and trying to use his 15 minutes in the spotlight to finally get his book published. To that end, he meets with an online literary agency run by Trent (Michael Cera), who couldn’t care less about Paul’s plans for an as-yet-unwritten tome about evolutionary biology; rather, his big-brain idea is to use Paul to sell Sprite.
Paul initially bristles at this notion, but he slowly takes to both Trent’s (bullshit) opinion that he’s “the most interesting person in the world” and an attendant promise to partner with Barack Obama on an ad campaign. At this point, Dream Scenario has already introduced a number of tantalizing avenues to explore, the most promising of which is suggested by university dean Brett (Tim Meadows) when, upon realizing that Paul is buying into his hype, he remarks, “So you believe in metaphysics if that proves you’re special?” Alas, before the film can investigate this clash between self-interest and ideals—or, for that matter, the link between Paul’s waking and in-dreams meekness—Borgli’s script swiftly moves on in order to continue upping the comedic ante.
Without warning, Paul’s fortunes change when he’s asked out by Trent’s assistant Molly (Dylan Gelula), who’s had a dream in which Paul does something extremely active—and sexual. Molly’s eagerness to recreate that imaginary encounter leads to Paul’s biggest humiliation in Dream Scenario, if not his final one. No sooner has he become an object of desire than Paul transforms into society’s very own Freddy Krueger, torturing, raping, and killing in people’s dreams. Unsurprisingly, this halts his rise to renown, ruins his reputation and career, and strains his marriage to Janet, who’d been using Paul’s prominence as a professional springboard and who now bristles at his frustration and fury at his unfair demonization.
Dream Scenario thus treads into cancel-culture territory and the sticky relationship between perceived and actual harm. Yet as with its prior concerns, it doesn’t do much with it, proving more interested in simply mining its protagonist’s wacko predicament for laughs. For its first two-thirds, that’s a successful plan of attack, thanks to various details (such as France’s reliable habit of celebrating ostracized former American stars) and Cage’s full-bodied performance as this dorkiest of dorks. With a slightly high-pitched laugh that comes off as strained, and a verbal and physical gracelessness that undermines his every attempt at acting confident (or, as he desperately wants to be to his daughters, “cool”), the headliner is hilarious, and reconfirms that even in overwhelmingly weird circumstances, he has a singular ability to be ridiculous and deeply, messily human.
If only Dream Scenario knew where it wanted to go or what it was trying to say. Ping-ponging about to make fun of careerism, commercialism, persecution, progressive buzzwords, and a host of other topics, the material never settles on a coherent thematic lane, and that becomes more pronounced as Paul’s fortunes nosedive. In its latter passages, Borgli makes a brusque right turn, adding an additional sci-fi layer to his already crazy conceit. The effect is to further muddy the already choppy waters, especially since these new elements feel flimsily related to the preceding action and are never properly fleshed out. Seemingly recognizing that this twist hasn’t worked, the film then seeks pathos by falling back on a different underdeveloped thread: Paul’s intermittently expressed wish that he’d show up in wife Janet’s dreams, which speaks to his consuming insecurity.
Dream Scenario’s ingeniously playful premise hinges on an equally clever pay-off, so Borgli’s failure to devise a coherent conclusion results in disappointment. Nonetheless, be it a host of dream sequences that blend absurdity and terror to witty effect, or the sight of Cage gamely trying to maintain a smile while suffering one indignity after another, the film is moment-to-moment lively, sharp, and funny. Too bad that, like a dream, its pleasures are all over the place, and dissipate almost as quickly as they arrive—and certainly by the time the (theater) darkness gives way to light.