Gemma Creagh looks at the murky unconscious in Dream Scenario.
The interior life of this film’s director, writer and editor Kristoffer Borgli must be a strange and scintillating space, unafraid to stare straight into the damaged human psyche and all its grotesque failures.
On paper, biology professor Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage) is living the a-typical American dream. A big house, good job, a fulfilling relationship with his wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson), friends, kids and trips to the opera – what more could a man want? But here’s where the classic existential crisis of the privileged sets in: when an old colleague writes the book he’d been putting off penning since college, Paul’s resentment starts to fester.
A chance encounter with an ex reveals she’s been seeing Paul in her dreams. As a journalist, she asks if she can write about it. Flattered by the attention and seeing it as a harmless flirtation, Paul agrees. But, when she tags him in the piece, Paul gets one message, then another… it turns out he’s been featuring in dreams of strangers across the country. Then the world. Initially Paul relishes his newfound fame, and even wrangles an invite to his old colleague Richard (Dylan Baker)’s exclusive dinner party. Trent (Michael Cera), an agent who sees an opportunity in this phenomenon, reaches out. This could be a chance to make serious money. What if Paul was to drink Sprite in these dreams? Could he reach Obama? Paul uses this as leverage to finally get his book published, but before this comes to fruition, a deeply uncomfortable encounter with Trent’s assistant Molly (Dylan Gelula) is the catalyst that changes the nature of the dreams. Paul’s tentative celebrity comes crumbling down around him, turning into something altogether more sinister.
Borgli’s writing is fresh, unexpected, and decidedly un-Hollywood in pace and structure. Throughout this exploration of a deeply silly premise, there’s nuance in each character. Paul, his family, in fact the entire suburban world created feels tangible, that emotional depth hidden beneath the powerful notes of well observed humour and pure madness. No one is inherently good or bad – except perhaps for Trent, brilliantly cast as Cera. This means that even as Paul engages in some unforgivable actions, it’s possible to maintain a sliver of empathy for him. This is brought home by the wonderful performances of an all round brilliant cast – and honourable mention here to Tim Meadows, who post Mean Girls, once again embodies a wisened and exhausted educator. Cage’s excruciating self doubt and palpable anxiety is packaged with an awkward warmth which lends itself to the believable chemistry between Cage and his on screen wife, played by Nicholson.
The themes filmmaker Borgli explores in this film are an extension of those in his last critical hit, Sick of Myself. This Norwegian language film examines the dark and unhealthy places ego with a healthy whack of narcissism can take a person. Dream Scenario tells a cautionary tale of being careful what you wish for, a rather uncomfortable to watch moral lesson that also spears the ridiculous nature of modern, short-lived fame and how it’s tied to cancel culture.
While there’s a strong hint of classic Kaufman to the surrealism, there’s nothing cliche or predictable in Dream Scenario.
Dream Scenario is in cinemas 10th November 2023.