With the type of career renaissance he’s enjoyed the past five years, Nicolas Cage is just the person you’d hope to see at the centre of a high-concept movie like Dream Scenario. He’s graduated to that phase of his career that made us immediately embrace a guy like John Malkovich when he starred in Charlie Kaufman’s movie about the portal into his brain, and the connections to Dream Scenario don’t end there. Not only was Cage in one of Kaufman’s best films, Adaptation, but Dream Scenario is a Kaufman scenario if ever there was one, with Cage playing a perfect schlubby Kaufman surrogate in a very Kaufman-esque ode to solipsism. (To top it all off, Cage just turned 60 over the weekend.)


This may seem like a setup for inevitable disappointment, but it isn’t. Writer-director Kristoffer Borgli is doing a note perfect impersonation of Charlie Kaufman here, or at least, the Kaufman we used to see before he went from inaccessible to downright arcane. Cage plays an ordinary man who discovers one day that he has started appearing in the dreams of, well, everybody. And fortunately, the trailers only reveal a small part of where the story is set to go – a standard we will strive, with some difficulty, to keep.

Cage plays Paul Matthews, a gentle and balding biology professor whose primary source of frustration is that a colleague has beaten him to publication and, he believes, stolen some of his research on ant intelligence, without attributing it or crediting him. (He coined the phrase “antillegence,” and though she swears she isn’t using it, there it appears in all the headlines about her book.) Paul’s own book hadn’t even been started, so his rightful claim to the material is at least partially in doubt. Not to worry, Paul has a much more unusual claim to fame ahead of him.

After a show with his wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson), Paul is tracked down by an ex-girlfriend who spotted him in the audience, who catches up to him to explain these strange dreams she’s been having about him. Paul appears in her dreams but does not exert any influence on them, an all-the-more callous form of bystandership considering that she’s always in grave danger. Of course, the real Paul has nothing to do with that.

His wife is a little bit concerned about an ex who seems to have designs on him, but this all becomes a larger phenomenon when his students and other acquaintances confess to getting their own dream cameos by Paul. Soon there’s barely a person who isn’t dreaming of Paul, even if they’ve never met him – and it becomes clear Paul is playing a role in their lives that is completely out of his control.


Paul muses at one point that science cannot explain why our brain needs to hallucinate while we sleep, and it is truly one of life’s great mysteries, since typical dream logic is no different than an epic hallucination. Dream Scenario posits a “what if” question we had never asked, and which it does not really want to answer: What if we all started having the same hallucination? What would that mean?

Dream content has, for certain, been shared among characters in movies before, but never around something so seemingly innocuous as Paul Matthews. A lot of the substantial amount of comedy in Dream Scenario is derived from these dreams, in which Borgli has concocted something truly odd and wonderful, made more so by Cage walking through them as impassively as a scientist observing an ant colony. That may be sort of the point, given Paul’s job, but Dream Scenario does not want to put too fine a point on anything it puts forward. The way Cage plays both his imperturbable dream self, and a real self that is becoming increasingly perturbed with all this attention, is a master class in comedy from a man who has been doing it for nearly 40 years.


The mode revealed by Dream Scenario in its trailers is only one of its modes. Suffice it to say that the initial positive attention received by Paul from starstruck citizens is not where this film is going to remain. And here Borgli’s most evident theme emerges. Paul’s meteoric rise based on a hyper-speed shared awareness mimics that of virality on social media. And if you think today’s viral star is going to stay on top for long, you obviously haven’t lived in these fickle times.

There’s something a little troubling about viewing this as all one cautionary tale about social media stardom, because that removes Paul’s role in the whole thing. Any character who yearns to be famous usually has a comeuppance coming, but that isn’t Paul. He yearns for success within his very narrow academic field, but such success would not lead to him being further recognisable to anybody outside of that field. We watch Dream Scenario wondering what Paul has done to deserve the strange vicissitudes that befall him in this story, and Borgli never tells us. That probably makes what he’s trying to pull off less facile, but is unsatisfying at its core.


What never ceases to be satisfying is watching Cage expertly work our sense of empathy. There is something of the fool about him, just as there was about the Charlie Kaufman character in Adaptation. But for the most part, this is a loving father and husband who finds himself manhandled by a fame he did not ask for. Cage shows us Paul’s shattered dignity, his human urges for the ego comforts of fame, his wavering faithfulness and overall confusion as he’s confronted with sexual temptation. (Dylan Gelula has an unforgettable role as the young assistant at the marketing firm that begins managing Paul’s career, who reveals her recurring sex fantasy about this decidedly average human specimen.) Paul’s attempts to be good – or at least, remain as passive as he has been throughout this whole phenomenon – are rewarded in a climax that plays havoc with your spirits.


Dream Scenario stops short of being in the same class as Kaufman’s great movies, but not because it makes any wrong turns. Its most surprising turns may be its best turns. It’s just that we expect there to be some cosmic explanation for punishments received by a character who essentially has no agency, but who puts essentially good things into the world. If it can’t be tied to some act of chutzpah or overstepping, then maybe it’s just a pitiless world we live in after all.


Dream Scenario is currently playing in cinemas.

8 / 10