Dream Scenario, Kristoffer Borgli

Nicolas Cage Descends into Self-Loathing in ‘Dream Scenario’

Nicolas Cage uses every bit of his talent to play an irredeemable, self-loathing character trapped in a nightmare scenario in Kristoffer Borgli’s Dream Scenario.

Dream Scenario
Kristoffer Borgli
10 November 2023 (US)

Is Nicolas Cage the only movie star in the history of Hollywood as comfortable playing beta males as action heroes? He occupies the opposite poles of the masculinity spectrum with equal degrees of credibility. For filmgoers of a certain vintage, Cage evokes the brief 1990s when he starred in popcorn flicks like Simon West’s Con Air (1997) and John Woo’s Face/Off (1997), which transformed him into a top-tier action star. (Cage’s turn as enthusiastic-nerd-cum-hesitant-hero Stanley Goodspeed in Michael Bay’s 1996 thriller The Rock made my 15-year-old self believe that he was the second coming of Marlon Brando, but I was an impressionable young person.) Cage parlayed the success of these blockbusters into A-list status and has returned to the action/adventure genre over the years with mixed results.

Cage’s most memorable performance from that era saw him extract a surprising degree of pathos from a character who could not have been more different than the impeccably muscled and imperiously quaffed hero of Con Air. In Spike Jonze’s 2002 comedy Adaptation, he played real-life screenwriter Charlie Kauffman as an off-key symphony of nerves and unimpressive physical qualities. (He also played Kauffman’s fictional brother, Donald, imbuing the latter with a silly self-confidence the former lacked.) If you saw Adaptation without knowing who Cage was, you could be forgiven for not believing the actor could handle a gun or pull off a roundhouse kick.

You can draw a straight line from Cage’s performance in Adaptation to his starring role in Kristoffer Borgli’s horror comedy Dream Scenario. Cage plays frumpy professor Paul Matthews, a man described by another character as someone who occupies space without leaving much of an impression. Paul is a tenured biology professor who wants to publish field-changing research but can’t bring himself to write a book.

His two daughters understandably view their socially insecure father as uncool. Paul’s sweet and supportive wife, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), tolerates his habit of coming across as condescending for reasons that defy comprehension. He is a man with a comfortable job, a beautiful house in a quaint northeastern college town, and a nice family. Unfortunately, he wants what so many of us want: attention and recognition.

He gets just that when he starts inexplicably popping up in other people’s dreams. This unexplained phenomenon turns Paul into an overnight celebrity. People who have never met him, as well as many who have, experience dreams that follow a basic pattern: something horrifically violent is threatening the dreamer’s well-being, only for Paul to show up as a neutral observer who watches the situation unfold rather than intervene. It’s the type of nonsensical premise dreams are made of.

The real-life Paul doesn’t see the humor and can’t hide his annoyance over the fact that no one dreams of him doing something heroic or, to be quite frank, doing anything at all. You can tell by the poorly disguised irritation Cage conveys through forced smiles that, for Paul, the idea that people see him, even in dreams, as someone who is present but not inclined toward action hits a bit too close to home.

Fame, even the 15-minute version, comes with perks, and it isn’t long before students are snapping selfies with Paul. A marketing firm hatches a proposal to turn him into an influencer and use his likeness to sell Sprite. After a pitch meeting, an assistant at the firm confesses that her dreams about Paul are sexual in nature. He seems intrigued as much by the notion that this is one person who dreams about him actually doing something as he is by the prospect of being the centerpiece of an attractive young woman’s fantasy. Naturally, he accepts an invitation to her apartment. In the film’s most laugh-out-loud sequence, he tries to consummate an affair but fails spectacularly, eventually slinking out the door on a note of acute humiliation.

At this point, the dreams Paul inhabits take a turn for the worse. Suddenly, he’s no longer a bumbling observer. People start having nightmares in which Paul kills them in gruesome ways. The undeserved fame that came so easily turns to vitriol. His students stop attending his lectures. He’s asked to leave a restaurant because his presence makes other customers uncomfortable. And in a particularly humiliating moment, he’s asked not to attend his youngest daughter’s school play for fear that he will be an unwelcome distraction.

Paul reacts to the turn of events with unmitigated indignation. Why should he be punished for what happens in other people’s dreams? His sound reasoning, however, is no match for the fickle tides of public opinion. Rather than act pragmatically, as Janet and his daughters ask him to do, Paul refuses to change his ways. This stubborn streak does not serve Paul well, and it isn’t long before he’s made matters far worse than they would have been had he chosen to lay low. Dream Scenario concludes with a clever send-up of influencer culture and an ending that is anything but a dream for Paul.

Dream Scenario never explains what causes Paul to appear in the projections of other people’s imaginations. Why should it? Tales about dreams should be allowed to follow dream logic, at least to a certain extent. One of the wonderful things about Dream Scenario‘s absurdist story is how quickly and unceremoniously it pivots from one section of the plot to the next. Like a dream, it shows no interest in elucidating the “why” but is keenly interested in watching its characters react to the surreal.  

The more interesting question is, what is Dream Scenario trying to express? The film practically begs the audience to take Paul’s side and see him as the victim. This is partly because facts are facts: No person can affect other people’s dreams, so why should Paul bear any blame for events outside his control? That Cage lends Paul the air of a wounded puppy dog also makes him an object of sympathy.

However, Dream Scenario’s message is that adversarial circumstances reveal character better than anything else. The problem with Paul isn’t that he’s a balding, pudgy, middle-aged academic who covers his social awkwardness by making awful jokes. It’s that he’s too easily convinced of his own specialness. A subtle sense of entitlement lurks beneath the surface of his dorky college professor persona, and it takes a bout of fame – followed by an even bigger bout of infamy – to show his true colors.

When Paul first becomes famous, he allows himself to believe that he is, in fact, special. He begins scheming ways to leverage his newfound virality into a deal for the book he hasn’t written. When things take a turn for the worse, he refuses to concede any ground even when it becomes clear that removing himself from public life will be beneficial for his wife and daughters. The most telling moment in Dream Scenario occurs after a group of students traumatized by their nightmares of Paul spray paint “Loser” on his car. Paul reacts with the type of unhinged anger that only someone who recognizes the truth in an insult could muster. Deep down, he knows he’s a loser because he wants to be someone he isn’t, and this nagging desire prevents him from appreciating the good things in his life.

Cage rendered Adaptation‘s Charlie Kaufman a sad sack redeemed by his brilliance as a screenwriter. But there is no redeeming Paul in Dream Scenario. He’s a beta male with nothing to contribute, a loser with no special talent – and a character Cage captures perfectly.

RATING 8 / 10