Kristoffer Borgli’s Dream Scenario stars Nicholas Cage, is produced by A24, and promises to traverse a surrealist dreamscape. As a self-confessed fan of Charlie Kaufman, to say my expectations were high would be an understatement. On paper, this film is the perfect concoction for any insufferable ‘film-bro’ (I use the term reluctantly). Yet, the film not only falls short of these expectations, but commits the cardinal sin of moviemaking – it’s safe.
Dream Scenario follows Paul Matthews (Nicholas Cage), an unassuming and often unnoticed university professor, desperate to be recognised for a book he is yet to write. Paul’s life is irrevocably altered when he begins to appear in the dreams of thousands of strangers – in a very literal sense, he becomes an overnight sensation. Suddenly, his classes double in size, he’s being interviewed by local news stations, and even being pitched potential ‘collabs’ with Sprite. That is until his role in these dreams shifts from passive onlooker to a nightmarish fiend, and the film devolves into a very limited critique of cancel culture better suited to an episode of Joe Rogan than the big screen.
That isn’t to say that the film doesn’t touch on some interesting themes. Its critique of advertising agencies rings true, while its dissection of the central character’s ego is both humorous and genuinely interesting. This is helped by Cage who, despite being known for his maximalism, is beautifully subtle here, particularly in the dream sequences. Indeed, it is these moments where the film really thrives: when people are floating through the air, when crocodiles are taking over living-rooms, or when Nicholas Cage is being hunted by… Nicholas Cage. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between. Whereas films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind allow themselves to get lost in the beautiful visuals and intellectual exploration typical of good surrealism, Dream Scenario plays it safe. It is inoffensive. It is fine.
Where the film really lets itself down is through its commentary on cancel culture. On this point it is important to stress that just because something features some form of social commentary, doesn’t mean that commentary is effective or nuanced. As Paul laments the turn in public-opinion against him for actions he hasn’t actually committed, it is impossible to avoid the wronged male fantasy of it all. Cancel culture is a complicated phenomenon. At points it can be an obstacle to progress but, equally, it can represent genuine and necessary consequences for individuals whose actions warrant being de-platformed. Dream Scenario, however, treats it as a childish movement where the ensuing mob more closely resembling a flock of sheep than real, thinking, humans. There was a real opportunity here to explore the morally grey areas of cancel culture, an opportunity which Dream Scenario turns and runs from.
Kristoffer Borgli is clearly a very competent filmmaker, and Cage and the supporting cast (particularly Julianne Nicholson, Michael Cera, and Dylan Gelula) remain largely blameless. A few of the jokes land, and the final sequence is wonderfully executed. Yet, despite its premise, Dream Scenario lacks ambition. If you want a film to take you inside someone else’s mind, try Being John Malcovich, or any script penned by Charlie Kaufman for that matter. They’re bold and don’t always work, but at least they are willing take some risks.