Film Review: “Dream Scenario” – Dream a Little Dream of Me?

By Ed Symkus

Nicolas Cage plays a man who craves renown but can only captivate an audience of sleepyheads.

Dream Scenario, written and directed by Kristoffer Borgli. Playing at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, AMC Boston Common, and Kendall Square Cinema.

Nicolas Cage in Dream Scenario. Photo: A24

A word of warning to those of you who let blurbs on movie posters help you decide what to see: The one splayed across the top of the poster for Dream Scenario is a quote from a Hollywood Reporter review, indicating that the film is “Pure Comedy Gold. Nicolas Cage has never been funnier.”

Was the reviewer mistaking this film for Raising Arizona?. I would never refer to Dream Scenario or Cage’s performance in it as humorous. There are certainly a few well placed if purposely uncomfortable laughs, but essentially this is an existential horror film — not a comedy.

It begins with a dream — a really strange one: A set of keys falls from the sky; a shoe follows. Then the person seeing these events in the dream — the teenager Sophie (Lily Brown) — becomes unmoored from the ground and starts floating away, freaking out while her dad, Paul (Cage), casually watches, unbothered by the situation.

In the waking world, Paul is a professor of evolutionary biology, seen early on droning away on the subject in front of a class of less-than-attentive students. He’s a nice guy, intelligent, knows his discipline, and enjoys a happy existence with his wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson) and two daughters — Sophie’s younger sister is Hannah (Jessica Clement).

But there’s something missing in his life. He craves some small degree of fame, or at least recognition, by his peers, his students, the world at large. His plan is to write a book on his topic of expertise, but obstacles keep getting in the way. A woman he knew long ago admits that she pilfered some of his ideas and inserted them into papers she’s published — without giving him credit. He’s also a bit of a procrastinator.

And then there’s that dream his daughter had. And another that Claire — a woman he used to date — tells him she had. He had a cameo in it. And the one Paul is told about by his friend Richard, who insists that his wife dreamed about him. One commonality: The dreams are weird, sometimes fraught with danger — each of them plays out on the screen. And in all of them, he’s nothing more than a passive bystander.

Circumstances lead to notoriety in the media. Appearances in other people’s subconsciouses trigger a TV news story, which includes suggestions that he’s at the center of a “dream epidemic.” By the time the peculiar Freudian nightmare has gone viral, Paul’s own dream, much to his chagrin, has come true. Fame is what he craved — it has arrived, with its ups and downs. It’s OK with Paul that his students, who had pretty much been ignoring him, now applaud when he enters the lecture hall. But it’s unsettling that a stranger breaks into his home with thoughts of killing him — possibly so he, too, can become famous.

More and more people report that Paul is popping up in their dreams. One woman approaches him and asks if he would take part in recreating a dream of hers — a very sexual one. His bewildered wife confronts him, asking, “Why aren’t you in my dreams?” Events veer out of control; when the dreams turn violent, his adoring public starts to turn against him. Paul’s oneiric adventures have become a living nightmare.

The Norwegian writer-director Kristoffer Borgli (last year’s Sick of Myself) draws on Cage’s admirable ability to dovetail, simultaneously, the lineaments of suffering and longing on his face. A wished-for world of renown is not only crumbling around Paul, it’s also falling in on top of him in the process.

Paul’s become a character we all should fear, because he could pop up in our dreams in threatening ways. But he’s also a figure who deserves our sympathy, because he hasn’t done anything wrong. He is an innocent. This fascinating film revolves around an interesting conundrum, a Kafkaesque meditation that turns the universal appeal of celebrity on its head.

Ed Symkus is a Boston native and Emerson College graduate. He went to Woodstock, interviewed Herb Alpert, Bob Denver, Julie Andrews, and Vince McMahon Jr., and has visited the Outer Hebrides, the Lofoten Islands, Anglesey, Mykonos, the Azores, Catalina, Kangaroo Island, Capri, and the Isle of Wight with his wife Lisa.

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