Nicolas Cage must know that he’s on our minds. Between GIFs, memes and the 100+ films in which he’s starred over the past 40 years, it can be a challenge getting through the week without seeing his face pop up at least once somewhere. His latest, the outstanding absurdist comedy Dream Scenario, seems to play with the idea of his unavoidable persona and the specific space he inhabits in our collective cultural subconscious. Like the shadow version of last year’s reflexive The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent, in which Cage played multiple versions of himself, this film deals with the consequences of a meteoric rise to fame. Sure, other movies have tackled the rise and fall arc of immediate notoriety under various circumstances but Norwegian writer-director Kristoffer Borgli brings a unique sense of fatalism and irony to the familiar narrative.
Cage stars as Paul Matthews, a biology professor so milquetoast that he perfectly encapsulates the Thoreau quote of “men [who] lead lives of quiet desperation.” In between his college lectures and his time at home with his wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson) along with their daughters, he plots a book about ant intelligence that he can’t seem to actually start. But then a strange incident keeps occurring to Paul: strangers recognize him. When he presses them, it turns out that he’s been popping up in their dreams, not even as the focal point but commonly as a bystander observing the main events. So many people begin to see him in their dreams that it becomes a worldwide phenomenon and so, this mild-mannered nobody is thrust into the spotlight, even if it’s not the manner in which he expected. But when everyone’s dreams turn into violent nightmares, the backlash is even more intense than the wave of appreciation that preceded it.
Dream Scenario is simultaneously a Kafkaesque and Charlie Kaufman-esque parable about men who say they value their anonymity but get visibly excited when a Like count on their Facebook post hits double digits. Of course, what distinguishes this movie from others about a swift rise to ubiquitousness is that Paul doesn’t have any control over what’s making him so popular. No one, least of whom Paul, can explain why he’s visiting random people during their sleep cycles and, of course, he has no say in what he’s doing in them. Borgli takes this high-concept premise to explore the ideas of identity and intention in the internet age, where captured moments and floating faces can go viral in a heartbeat. He calls to mind the notion that no matter the size and scale of our interactions, we can never completely manage how people perceive us.
Recalling his dual role in Adaptation, in which he plays struggling screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his fictitious brother Donald, Cage is pitch-perfect as a man so meek and mired that it’s hard not to feel bad for him. We learn early on that, sadly, the more Paul attempts to take hold of the bizarre situation, the harder he will likely fail. He returns the call from a PR firm, headed by a hilarious Michael Cera, who doesn’t understand the origin of Paul’s fame but wants to capitalize on it all the same. He tries to parlay the prompt popularity for an invite to a colleague’s dinner party that he previously wasn’t cool enough to attend but the evening goes wildly astray. Those who lament in watching protagonists engage in Sisyphean efforts to overcome their circumstances may be driven mad by Dream Scenario but, as a huge fan of Cage’s virtuosic pathos, I was delighted.
Of course, the film also calls back to another Spike Jonze project in Being John Malkovich, but almost in reverse; where that movie was about everyone trying to get into one celebrity’s head, Dream Scenario is about a reluctant celebrity trying to get out of everyone else’s. Like Malkovich, it also evokes how we strive to spice up the mundane nature of everyday life with pop culture fixations. Paul’s increasingly threatening pervasiveness in people’s dreams naturally points to Freddy Krueger from the A Nightmare On Elm Street series, which Borgli cleverly integrates in the third act. An iconic costume from an iconic concert film is also implemented as a lynchpin for a tender memory between Paul and Janet, similar to one that would appear in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. Despite its modern sensibilities, Dream Scenario‘s central theme of how we perceive one another is timeless and endlessly resonant.
Score – 4.5/5
New movies coming this week:
Playing only in theaters is The Boy And The Heron, an animated fantasy film starring Robert Pattinson and Christian Bale about a boy who discovers an abandoned tower in his new town after his mother’s death and enters a fantastical world with a talking grey heron.
Streaming on Netflix is Leave The World Behind, a psychological thriller starring Julia Roberts and Mahershala Ali about a family’s getaway to a luxurious rental home that takes an ominous turn when a cyberattack knocks out their devices and two strangers appear at their door.
Premiering on Amazon Prime is Merry Little Batman, an animated action comedy starring Luke Wilson and Yonas Kibreab about Bruce Wayne’s son Damian safeguarding his home and the rest of Gotham City from supervillains during the holiday season.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup