Dream Scenario (2023) Movie Review – Nic Cage gives a standout performance in this chaotic comedy

Nic Cage gives a standout performance in this chaotic comedy

Kristoffer Borgli wants you to “stop chasing the byproduct of achievement and start chasing achievement itself.” That’s from his interview with RogerEbert.com and a pervasive message in his upcoming film Dream Scenario. In the twisty comedy drama, distributed by A24 and co-produced by Ari Aster, Nicolas Cage inexplicably invades everyone’s dreams as the unassuming evolutionary biology professor Paul Matthews, who embraces too easily a sudden and unearned fame. Borgli delivers a hilarious and inventive setup that promises unique insights into “cancel culture,” the destructive pursuit of fame, and the reshaping of art into products of corporate interest–but the high-concept vision falters in the second act.

The first half of the film is brilliantly executed, and Cage is the perfect Paul Matthews. That’s owing partly to the stellar work done by the costume and makeup departments to make him the unobtrusive figure he is in the movie. But the actor is also in top form here, blending at appropriate moments (and for comedy’s sake) his characteristic exaggerated style with the overall blandness of this everyman character. He’s drab enough that we know he doesn’t deserve his wife, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), but just safe and familiar enough for us to understand why she stays with him. And while his cringeworthy mannerisms will never have his two daughters (Lily Bird and Jessica Clement) looking up to him, he’s still a presence they value in their lives. Despite the fact that he never really does… anything–not even in his daughter’s dreams.

You could consider this role a reprisal of Cage’s Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation–that is, if Paul Matthews had more self awareness regarding his own passivity. Both characters have a strong sense of entitlement to do with their own capabilities and intellect. But the faults that plague Adaptation’s Kaufman in the forefront of his mind collect dust in the back of Matthew’s consciousness–they’re present; they certainly bother him… but they do nothing to deflate his ego. Whereas Kaufman constantly self-flagellates for not acting on his goals, Matthews sees what he could achieve as already part of himself. If he has the potential to do something brilliant, then certainly he is brilliant.

It actually bothers him a bit that the world suddenly recognizes him not for the book he hasn’t yet written, but for something he’s only passively part of. Even in people’s dreams, he doesn’t do anything. And yet, he readily embraces the fame that this passive involvement thrusts upon him. His journey is in interesting conversation with Borgli’s 2022 film Sick of Myself, which follows a woman who intentionally disfigures herself for attention in another satire about the lengths we go to in pursuit of fame.

Paul is forced to reckon with his own mediocrity in countless awkward scenarios he’s ill-equipped to navigate but narcissistically powers through. That’s when Borgli’s film is best–when it focuses on the minute details of unexceptional people’s egos. The film is less powerful, however, when grappling with larger social issues.

Dream Scenario bites off more than it can chew with its grandiose musings about the nature of fame and cancel culture. Sure, it prompts us to really analyze our desire for attention, indicting our clout-seeking culture. But it isn’t as thought-provoking as it pretends, rather preferring to make fun of its subjects than explore the absurdities of their desires. Why do we seek fame and yet make the worst use of it? Why do we need to take down a notch those with fame, and yet crave to be in their very position? Why do we think we can control how people perceive us? Borgli considers all these absurd facets of humanity but doesn’t delve into them. There’s even a whole subplot wherein Paul’s daughter’s nightmares about him turn freakish that could have explored more questions of perception on an intimate, familial level. But it’s dropped completely, and Matthews’ role as a father is underplayed as a whole.

The film experiences a jarring tonal shift as it takes itself from cringe comedy to cringe horror. When Paul takes a more menacing role in people’s dreams, Borgli’s characters start to present more like caricatures of the kinds of personalities we see online. And while that’s likely to underscore some point about the terminally online, the result still doesn’t quite satisfy the craving for authenticity from a film so devoted to real world frustrations. It’s all very provocative, but to what end? To have us shaking our heads at the absurdity of people, I suppose.

But Cage’s character is unique, and Borgli writes him thoughtfully. Is he a pathetic object of contempt or an innocent bystander? We have to truly wrestle with how we feel about Paul Matthews. He didn’t do anything to deserve the hatred dreamers lobby at him, but is he undeserving? Maybe “cancel culture,” Borgli is saying, can be hasty and vile and misguided and yet good for something, as it can often reveal the true hearts of its targets.

While Dream Scenario often feels provocative for provocation’s sake, it’s not without its pockets of profundity. In a brilliant performance from Dylan Gelula, one young woman’s fascination with the sexually dominant Paul of her dreams makes you wonder which is worse: when people see you as you really are, or when they build up an image of you in their minds you can’t possibly live up to.

There’s actually a lot of raw elements in here to love, not the least of which is a career-standout performance from Nicolas Cage. And while I don’t know that all of Borgli’s threads come together cohesively in the end, he does leave us with a lot to chew on. It is bitterly ironic, isn’t it? That in a time where we can polish our image to perfection, we perhaps have less control than ever over how others see us. So, what really matters in the wake of this: what we’ve done, or what it looks like we’ve done? It’s an important question to ask.


Read More: Dream Scenario Ending Explained

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  • Verdict - 7/10

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