Film: Dream Scenario

Dream Scenario (2023) is one of those high-concept comedies that might have turned out disposable, in the wrong hands. (I couldn’t help but re-imagine it as a vehicle for, say, Jim Carrey or Ben Stiller fifteen years ago; the thought makes me cringe.) Fortunately, it’s the brainchild of Norwegian writer-director Kristoffer Borgli, stars an all-in Nicholas Cage, and arrives on the scene against the reality-distorting backdrop of twenty-first century social media. The results are thus more thematically intriguing, and while on the whole I’m not sure the experiment totally lands, it’s nonetheless something to behold.

Paul Matthews (Cage) is an evolutionary biologist and college professor, with an ordinary marriage, two kids, a house, and—in his view—a ton of unrecognized potential. Paul’s boring, middle-class existence gets a jolt when, one after another, people reveal they are having vivid dreams about him. For some reason, Professor Paul Matthews is invading the zeitgeist by way of the collective dreamscape, which turns him from a run-of-the-mill nobody into a viral celebrity overnight. Trying to capitalize on his sudden, inexplicable stardom, Paul secures an agent (Michael Cera) to kickstart his languishing academic career. But soon enough, fame’s unexpected consequences rear their ugly head, turning his life upside down.

What a timely juxtaposition to have watched Dream Scenario just after Baby Reindeer, which has a similar thematic focus on ordinary men bending themselves out of shape in an attempt to realize their dreams—without first fully investigating the motives and insecurities driving them, and considering the possible costs of their ambition. Dream Scenario manages to fuse its pithy, what-if concept with a philosophical, satirical approach to modern life’s internet superficiality, with Paul as a walking meme whose accidental fame leads to accidental infamy—a sharp-edged jab at the reality-distorting effects of instantaneous, user-driven media. The film builds a fun mystique early, with Cage schlubbing it out brilliantly, a regular joe so eager to escape obscurity that he forgets what really matters. Julianne Nicholson is terrific as Paul’s kind, long-suffering wife, and there’s great comic timing from Cera, Kate Berlant, Dylan Gelula, and Tim Meadows, among many others. The third act, alas, doesn’t quite nail it, introducing an amusing but jarring speculative element, but for overall execution, Cage’s performance, and a nicely realized final moment, it totally justifies the watch.

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