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Run Time: I hour 42 minutes
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Janet Matthews, Lily Bird, Tim Meadows
Writer/Director: Kristoffer Borgli
Reviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival
Nicolas Cage’s latter-career inclination to make any kind of movie he damn well pleases has yielded its ups (Pig) and downs (Jiu Jitsu) — but it has seldom paid off more handsomely than in this wildly off-kilter comedy about a mild-mannered college professor who, inexplicably, starts turning up in the dreams of people around the globe.
Writer/director Kristoffer Borgli, a Norwegian newcomer virtually unknown to American audiences, channels the offbeat vibes of Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich), spending just the right amount of time setting up his oddball premise, then slicing and dicing it into variations that are unexpected yet, in retrospect, inevitable.
Cage is Professor Paul Matthews, a tenured but undistinguished lecturer in evolutionary biology at a mid-level college. When he shows his students a slide of zebras huddling together, their stripes making them individually indistinguishable to a predator, it’s no stretch to see Paul himself as a cowering zebra, desperately trying to blend in on the veldt of humanity.
In class one day, Paul notices his students looking at him oddly. One by one, they haltingly relate dreams they had the prior night; dreams in which Paul played no active role, but was a prominent presence nevertheless. Most often, the dreams were of unspeakable peril — being chased by a bloodthirsty maniac or experiencing a horrific earthquake — with Paul standing by, something beyond passive, watching disinterestedly as the havoc unfolded.
At first, Paul figures he’s been underestimating his impact upon his students. But then, strangers on the street start staring at him. And before long, it’s clear that just about everyone, everywhere on the planet, is dreaming about Paul Matthews — to the point where a smarmy advertising executive (Michael Cera) tries to enlist him to sell Sprite to sleeping consumers.
But Paul doesn’t remain a benign nighttime presence for long. Soon, he’s taking more active — increasingly ominous — roles in the world’s REM cycles. Finally, when the Dreamland Paul goes full-Freddy Krueger, society’s fascination with the real Paul takes a decidedly grim turn.
No one is better at portraying the fog of dawning realization than Cage. Paunchy, bare-pated, perpetually ill-at-ease, Cage’s Professor Paul is in turn mystified, intrigued, horrified, and outraged by his newfound subliminal notoriety. If writer/director Borgli is a jazz musician riffing on his outrageous theme, Cage is his scat singer, hitting notes of panicked wonder we didn’t know existed on the scale.
Sharing Paul’s initial bemusement and mounting horror are his appropriately exasperated teen daughter (Lily Bird) and trying-to-be-supportive wife (Mare of Easttown’s Julianne Nicholson). It’s always good to see Saturday Night Live alum Tim Meadows, and here he’s a delight as Paul’s college dean, stumbling through the process of having to fire a guy for being an ominous global dream presence.
You’ll be tempted to cast Dream Scenario as a commentary on viral fame; an indictment of a TikTok world that drags unlikely people kicking and screaming into the public spotlight, only to casually dispense with them and then, cruelly, blame them for having commanded our attention in the first place.
If that’s the case, then fine, mission accomplished. But lessons and morals seem somehow beneath Dream Scenario, which so ingeniously turns in on itself, creating a world that looks and feels like ours, but exists in a place where the primary takeaway may well be something beyond our experience.
Like all the best movies, Dream Scenario takes us to a place we’ve never been. And that’s more than enough.
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