Review: Nicolas Cage Stars as a Man Reckoning with Unexpected Fame in Dream Scenario

Exploring the worlds of dreams and nightmares, as well as providing an insightful glimpse into the phenomenon of fame for being famous, Norwegian-born writer/director Kristoffer Borgli (Sick of Myself) has reconstructed the hilarious and haunting Dream Scenario. In it, Nicolas Cage plays tenured professor Paul Mathews, an expert in biology who is deeply bothered by the fact that his expertise hasn’t led to greater fame in his field; he even confronts a former colleague about a book she’s about to publish that includes ideas that they worked on together years earlier, for which he receives no credit.

One day, Paul finds out that he’s been appearing in other people’s dreams as a mostly passive character while something more remarkable or traumatic is going on to the dreamer. His presence is non-intrusive as he stares at the fantasy or nightmare scenario without comment or action. But when he starts showing up in more or less everyone’s dreams, Paul becomes an overnight celebrity, with news stories about him and talent agents (including one played by Michael Cera) clamoring to meet with him and even dangling possible book deals, something Paul wants more than anything. But after an upsetting event in Paul’s real life involving one of Cera’s underlings (Dylan Gelula), people start seeing Paul in their dreams as an aggressive force—the attacker, the killer, the tormenter, or worse—and he becomes a pariah to the world at large, even though he’s done nothing wrong.

Dream Scenario is a smart, funny work about what happens when a person becomes an overnight celebrity despite having contributed nothing to society or the world at large. It’s much easier to hate someone you used to love if they never actually did anything good for the world, and Paul finds that out quickly. He’s full of himself to just such a degree that he thinks this fame can translate into interest in his work as a biologist, but when he gets in a restaurant fight simply for being a disturbing presence in other’s nightmares, he realizes that his quirky fame is devastating. Even his loving wife (Julianne Nicholson) is preparing to leave him. Produced by Ari Aster, the film features one of Cage’s best roles in recent years, and its twisted take on reality (no actual explanation is given for Paul’s dream appearances) reminds me of the best works of filmmakers like Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, and Charlie Kaufman.

Watching Cage navigate the stages of celebrity is fascinating, and it certainly isn’t difficult to transpose his journey onto real-life famous folks in pop culture today. Paul is a man afraid of his own anonymity, but at a certain point, he becomes terrified of someone recognizing him, and it’s that road that makes Dream Scenario so mesmerizing at times. It’s a film that demands repeat viewings, careful consideration, thoughtful analysis, and an appreciation for one of the greatest fart jokes of the 21st century so far.

The film opens in Chicago this Friday, with a nationwide release coming November 22.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.