Nicolas Cage deserves better.
After decades in the public eye, the American movie star has become a polarizing figure. To some, he is one of the most uncompromising and compelling screen actors alive today. (Hi, I’m some.) To others, he’s an over-the-top persona, defined by gifs and memes of his eyes bugged out wide or his face cracking into an alarming smile.
His latest film, Dream Scenario, confronts the horror of this latter perspective, with Cage playing a man whose very face and name are robbed from him by ravenous internet culture. However, writer/director Kristoffer Borgli undermines what could have been a thought-provoking path for his horror comedy to instead take wild swings at “cancel culture” — which do not land.
While Cage gives his all to a unique and riveting performance, his director can’t create a film worthy of him. Sadly, it’s a pattern lately. (See also such Cage offerings as Sympathy For The Devil, Renfield, and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, where he played himself — twice.)
What’s Dream Scenario about?
In Dream Scenario, Cage stars as Paul Matthews, a professor in evolutionary biology and family man who goes from “remarkable nobody” to “the most interesting person in the world” — through no fault of his own.
The dynamic Cage of his many action movies (from Con Air to Face/Off, Kick-Ass to Mandy) is not to be found here. His sharp jawline has been softened by a flat, greying beard. His pompadoured hair is shaved away to a yawning bald scalp. His bold fashion sense was abandoned for bland button-downs, khakis, and pullover sweaters. His electrifying elocution softened into mumbles, self-aware chuckles, and the occasional panicked plea. This Nic Cage character isn’t just uncool, he’s the kind of guy who might as well be invisible. That is, until Paul starts turning up in other people’s dreams. His daughter, his students, old colleagues, and even strangers — they all see him pop in. While surreal and nightmarish scenarios play out in their sleep, he is there as a banal witness.
At first, Paul is tickled by the attention this brings — even if it bothers him that almost universally he’s so passive in these dreams that he might as well be a piece of furniture. But as his story spreads across the internet — and more and more subconsciouses — he loses any grasp on his own narrative. His identity is no longer his own, but a plaything to a world hungry for entertainment and ever-ready for outrage.
Nicolas Cage is at the top of his game, again.
The excitement inherent in seeing a Nicolas Cage movie for the first time is its unpredictability. Here is an actor who doesn’t fear going too far or swinging too big. But as the earthy thriller Pig reminded us in 2021, Cage is capable of nuance as well. As Paul, he shuffles instead of swaggers. His shoulders hunch in an almost constant apology for existing at all. He speaks — even in his lectures to students — as if ever on the verge of retreat. Until he enters their dreams.
‘The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent’ review: This Nic Cage movie should be so much wilder
With this inexplicable situation, Paul grows in confidence and in his sense of entitlement. Cage straightens his posture, moves with more conviction, and flirts with a more commanding tone. But this is a pose Paul can’t maintain, and in that, there is agonizing awkwardness…and fart jokes. And yet, Paul doesn’t come off like the butt of a joke. I don’t credit that to Borgli’s script, as he seems to relish pushing his embattled protagonist through a barrage of indignities. But even playing embarrassed or ashamed, Cage is alive with a yearning that urges us to root for Paul.
The only echo of kooky Cage here exists in the dreams, where Paul becomes a caricature of himself, alien and unnerving. In these sequences and beyond, Cage thrives despite Borgli’s lack of imagination and stifling cynicism.
Dream Scenario misses the mark on its social criticism.
Cage’s performance is fleshed out and alive, but Borgli’s world-building is vexingly weak. While the internet is said to be going wild over Paul, there’s little onscreen to showcase that. Instead, Borgli offers a derisive line about Twitter reactions (already dating the film in lieu of the X of it all) and pivoting to a douchey marketing team, who is eager to capitalize on Paul’s overnight fame. While Michael Cera and Kate Berlant are sharply amusing in these satirical roles, the other supporting characters range from thinly drawn to caustically rendered.
Paul has two daughters, who are chiefly defined by being the one who dreams about him and the one who doesn’t. His students are a gawping gaggle meant to mock Gen Z, as Paul goes on a tirade, dropping buzzwords like “trauma” and “lived experience” with disdain as if they were slurs. “Cancel culture” will likewise pop up with all the subtlety of a hammer blow to the head, deriding this concept as an unjust culture war against helpless victims like poor Paul.
While the first hour offers an intriguing premise, Borgli burns off possibilities and interest with his ghoulish plot developments that make for increasingly wonky metaphors. By the third act, he’s flinging in lazy criticisms of everything from influencers to wellness culture and tech bros. Dream Scenario devolves into a movie where Tucker Carlson and Barack Obama get name-dropped for cheap laughs. And as you might guess from both dated references, Dream Scenario has nothing new — or all that deep — to bring to the conversations it wades into with smirking glee.
For Nicolas Cage, Dream Scenario was personal.
Despite the film’s gratingly off-the-rails third act, it’s easy to see why it might have appealed to Cage. On one level, Paul is a fascinating role, because he exists not only in his rollercoaster arc of fame and misfortune, but also in the dreams of others. This demands an actor essentially play out several versions of the same character, tweaking to perception. Beyond the thrill of this challenge, at the Q&A following Dream Scenario‘s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Cage said how bizarre it is to see himself, his face, and his life’s work, co-opted by a meme culture that flattens him into a punchline.
This sounds like a nightmare to which Paul could relate. Yet Borgli undercuts Cage’s performance with his tantrums of provocation and turning Paul’s story into a strawman argument against so-called “cancel culture.”
Whose fault is it that Paul is on everyone’s mind? The movie won’t answer. It doesn’t really seem to care. Instead, its setup becomes an obstacle course to run its harried hero through — making us the gawking witness unable to help. But rather than relate to Paul’s impotence — and wallow in that tension — the audience is encouraged to laugh at him as he faces one humiliation after another. Bit by bit, Borgli spoils the humor of the first half with the lazy psychological pondering in the second.
In the end, Dream Scenario is less funny or frightening than it is callous and smug, delivering a conclusion that’s sloppily cynical and simply unsatisfying.
Dream Scenario was reviewed out its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival; it is now in theaters.
UPDATE: Nov. 9, 2023, 6:05 p.m. EST This review was originally published on September 12, 2023, but has been reposted for the film’s theatrical release.