Skip to main content
film review
  • Dream Scenario
  • Written and directed by Kristoffer Borgli
  • Starring Nicolas Cage, Julianne Nicholson and Michael Cera
  • Classification 14A; 100 minutes
  • Opens in theatres Nov. 24

Critic’s Pick

It is safe to say that, on any given night, Nicolas Cage haunts the dreams of at least a few dozen moviegoers. It’s almost a mathematical certainty, given the sheer number of films that the actor has appeared in over the past decade – many of which suffer from a weirdly cheapo cinematic sensibility, the kind of B-flicks that belong neither in our waking nor unconscious worlds. Not so much direct-to-stream as direct-to-dream, as it were. But what if everyone in the world started dreaming of Nicolas Cage – or at least some version of Nicolas Cage – at the very same time? And what if we couldn’t stop?

This is the chef’s-kiss premise of the new dark comedy Dream Scenario, a thoroughly imaginative and mostly brilliant movie from Norwegian director Kristoffer Borgli that is easily the best thing – real or otherwise – that Cage has starred in for ages. Think Pig or Mandy, as opposed to Primal or Kill Chain on the prestige-to-payday scale of Cage career choices.

May December, the high-camp melodrama starring Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore, is one of 2023′s best movies

At the beginning of Dream Scenario, the life of biology professor Paul Matthews could not be more normal. Or at least more blandly anonymous. With a paunch, a hunch and a preference for oversized sweaters and what might politely be called dad jeans, Paul is the kind of man whose day-to-day life is ignored by the rest of the world. His students ignore him. His wife (Julianne Nicholson) and two teenage daughters politely endure him. His dean (Tim Meadows) placates him. And his neighbours (including Dylan Baker, playing another super-WASP) easily make do without inviting him over for their dinner parties. There is a reason that Paul lives in a town called Robing (that’s an anagram for “boring”) and teaches at a college called Osler (rearrange the letters for yourself).

But then one day Paul starts to appear in an ex-girlfriend’s dream. And then a student’s. And then people whom he doesn’t even know. Paul isn’t doing much in the dreams – some of them are sweet fantasies, others casual nightmares – he’s just kind of there, as passive a presence as he is in reality. Soon enough, Paul becomes an international phenomenon, inescapable and unexplainable.

He goes viral, meaning that the dreams are now memes. Which also means, going by the modern cycle of instant-fame, that Paul is due for a cultural reckoning. To be labelled “problematic.” To be cancelled. Or, to recontextualize the terminology of the film’s conceit, to become the sleeping target of the genuinely woke.

This is where the film takes a daring headfirst dive into contemporary sociopolitics, which could have resulted in a rude awakening for Borgli. Yet the director has an imagination for deep-sleep surrealism as well as a stomach for gutsy satire. As Paul’s normal-guy shtick starts to fuel the world’s consumerist impulses – at one point he meets with a smarmy marketing guru (Michael Cera, perfectly cast) who is convinced that Paul should be the new face of Sprite – everyone’s dreams begin to quickly curdle, paving the way for a new nightmare that not even dream warrior Wes Craven could have conjured with Freddy Krueger.

Open this photo in gallery:

Dream Scenario is a thoroughly imaginative and mostly brilliant movie that is easily the best thing that Cage has starred in for ages.The Associated Press

Borgli lets his grip on the material loosen slightly toward the final bit – a development involving “dreamfluencers” feels tacked on, even though it does provide the opportunity for an excellent cameo from the only living actor who can out-Cera Michael Cera in that awkwardly slimy way – this is mostly a nervy, confident comedy whose provocations are earned.

Then again, it could have all fallen to pieces without Cage’s participation, given that so much of Paul’s dilemma can be read as a metaphor for the actor reckoning with his own career’s meme-ification. As Paul cycles through the toxic stages of fame, his journey feels acutely real – almost circadian in its hilarious and crushing rhythms – because Cage is offering what seems like the entirety of himself over to the character.

There is one moment in particular toward the middle of the film – a pseudo-sex scene in which Paul’s fortunes truly turn for the worse – during which Cage conjures a pained facial expression that has never, ever been captured either on screen or in real life, yet is so detestably recognizable and relatable to every single person watching that it is destined to linger longer than anyone’s most vivid dreams.

It is the kind of all-or-nothing performance that has helped the actor continue to retain his status as both an artist and a highly marketable commodity. Even if he isn’t currently the official Sprite spokesman. Yet.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe