5 out of 5 stars

Dream Scenario is the fantastical story of Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage), a biology professor and frustrated academic at a small Northeastern US college. Paul is a zero’s zero, or, as he puts it himself, “a remarkable nobody.” He’s a master of self-abnegation, simmering with resentment at his lack of recognition as he keeps the world at arm’s length and is consistently left off every guest list in town. 

Even his lovely wife, Janet (Juliane Nicholson), who offhandedly refers to Paul as an asshole, may well have married him more out of pity than for love. Unsurprisingly, his teenage daughters, Hannah (Jessica Clement) and Sophie (Lily Bird), would rather hide in their smartphones than share a dinner table with him. 

Then, one night, for reasons never explained, Paul begins appearing in other people’s nightmares, starting with one of his daughters. He plays no active role in the nightmares, merely wandering through as a passive observer.

Nothing remarkable so far, but when Paul later encounters a long-lost flame, Claire (Marnie McPhail), who has also seen Paul in her dreams, the mystery deepens. It’s one thing to be dreamt of by people we know, but another to be dreamt of by total strangers. The phenomenon spreads as students across the campus, faculty members, and people around the world step forward with reports of bald, dorky Paul Matthews wandering in the uncanny valley of their dreams with a presence no more substantial than a floor lamp.

Not everyone has these dreams, and there is no discernible pattern to their occurrence. However, Paul quickly goes viral, becoming a quasi-mythical figure in humanity’s collective unconscious, as once theorised by Carl Jung. Soon, the world is knocking at his door. (He even achieves cult status in France, a country known for embracing cultural rejects, as any Jerry Lewis fan knows). 

Fame also brings trouble, but Paul’s celebrity inspires him to revive his long-dormant book on his theory of consciousness in nature. Seeking the necessary clout to get it done, he turns to a viral marketing firm led by Trent (Michael Cera), who initially proposes to insert Paul into a soft drink branding campaign, the first of many sinister marketplace incursions. 

Things take a darker turn when one of the firm’s young execs, Molly (Dylan Gegula), admits to Paul that she’s been dreaming of him, too…. only not as a walk-on but as an aggressive midnight seducer. Aroused by the idea, she seduces Paul into acting out the scenario with her, with cringy results. 

A dangerous mutation soon emerges, transforming Paul from a benign presence into a nightmarish figure akin to Freddy Krueger, wreaking havoc across the world’s dreamscape. This transformation swiftly catapults him into the crosshairs of cancel culture, and even his once-guarded anonymity can’t save him.

Dream Scenario is a brilliant mind-bender that shares some resemblance with Being John Malkovich (1999), another highbrow concept film about minds under occupation. It’s not a knee-slapping farce but a precisely crafted blend of magical realism and extremely dark humour, showcasing very modern and very bad manners. This unique blend of genres engages and delights. 

Wearing three hats as editor, writer, and director, Norwegian filmmaker Kristoffer Borgli (Sick of Myself) has woven a grimly funny tale in which the border between our private dreams and public lives turns dangerously porous. He envisions the Internet, social media, and A.I. as the villains that cater to our worst instincts to no avail. The freedom we find in our dreams comes under attack by the mores of society and demands of the marketplace, with Paul Matthews the chief victim of this emergent totalitarianism.

Borgli directs in the straightforward manner associated with magic realism, where uncanny events occur without underlying explanations, simply as matters of fact. The dream sequences blend bizarre and prosaic details, such as the sound of footsteps (a feature absent from my dreams). As an eerie stroke, he inserts a flickering effect at the start to remind us we’re entering a dream and then repeats it as though to wake us up. (Movies are also dreams, but collective ones enjoyed with popcorn.)

Cinematographer Benjamin Loeb paints both waking and dream worlds in similar tones of dark-grained colours and low-key lighting that further blur the borders between waking and dreaming, keeping things off-kilter. Composer Owen Pallet drops in peculiar solo piano passages at various points that underline Paul’s deepening isolation.

In the vein of Beau is Afraid (2023), whose director, Ari Aster, is an executive producer here, Dream Scenario is a modern take on the Story of Job, the Biblical allegory of one man’s relentless and undeserved suffering. But where Aster took three long hours to make his point, Borgli makes his in a brisk 100 minutes. He also offers a welcome touch of compassion with a haunting, poignant conclusion that sticks in the mind and heart.

The screenplay is teeming with ideas and implications, maybe more than it can handle.  A few questions are left hanging, such as the nature of Paul’s dream world, which we only visit once. Moreover, we never see Paul seek outside help once the walls start closing in. The more overtly satiric moments might grow outdated over time.

The cast is great from top to bottom. Julianne Nicholson is a standout as Janet Matthews, expressing her wavering between love and outright rejection with a fine nuance. But Dream Scenario truly belongs to Nicolas Cage as Paul Matthews. While I’ve never been a huge Nic Cage fan, often finding him an unappealing showboat, as Paul Mathews he restrains his campy tendencies with a commanding, empathetic performance that elevates this film into one of the best dream scenarios you’ll find this holiday season.

USA | 2023 | 100 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

writer & director: Kristoffer Borgli.
starring: Nicolas Cage, Julianne Nicholson, Michael Cera, Tim Meadows, Dylan Gelula & Dylan Baker.