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TIFF23: Dream Scenario Is Unhinged and Absurd

(L-R) Nicolas Cage Credit: Courtesy of A24

Bizarre and unhinged, Dream Scenario is a wild story that director Kristoffer Borgli described as “What if Nightmare on Elm Street was real?” The answer is absurd, significantly since Borgli dropped the premise in a reality as painfully logical and ignorant as ours.

Nicholas Cage is Paul Mathews, a middle-aged, married father of two and tenured professor. He is the man of no one’s dreams until he is the man in everyone’s dreams. The phenomena is never scientifically explained, nor does it need to be, because despite this film being doused in magical realism and speculative fiction, this is not a sci-fi film. Dream Scenario, as weird as it is, is a harsh critique of fame, capitalism, and mob mentality.

Nicolas Cage, Julianne Nicholson embracing at the end of the film
(L-R) Nicolas Cage, Julianne Nicholson Credit: Courtesy of A24

Nicolas Cage is superb. He leans into his experiences with memification and internet culture to foster his character’s frustration with fame, and all it comes with. He plays ordinary in an odd comedic way that dumbfounds. In what world has Nicolas Cage ever been ordinary? But his performance, costuming and hair make him a forgettable professor of something about plants? No, no, ants! Or was it zebras?

Dream Scenario is packed with humour in unexpected places and cameos from Paul Dano, Noah Centineo, Josh Richards and a few other familliar faces. There’s humor in the awkward silences, in-action, over-action. Together, Borgli and Cage make creative choices for the various dreams and nightmares we witness that exaggerate fantasies and horrors we all have. Kristoffer Borgli admits he pulled from decades of horror tropes to make his nightmares captivating, horrifying, and familiar to the point we see the satirical element of Cage’s performance.

Michael Cera is the bumbling CEO of a management company who takes Cage on as a client amidst all of the hyped craze around Paul Mathews’ sudden appearance in everyone’s dreams. When they meet we get the barely listening, leaching agent character that so perfectly encapsulates social media marketing and today’s consumerist market. Cera and Kate Berlant (A League of their Own) are incredible bouncing off each other as obtuse, vapid, and money hungry.

Nicolas Cage and Dylan Gelula in the elevator at Thoughts Thoughts Thoughts
(L-R) Nicolas Cage, Dylan Gelula Credit: Courtesy of A24

Their assistant, played by Dylan Gelula (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), has possibly one of the most cringe scene in the whole film where she and Cage recreate the sex dream she has about him every night only for him to come as soon as she touches his crotch. Everything about the lead-up to this encounter and the intensity of Gelula’s performance matched with Cage’s awkwardness creates an excruciating sexual exhibition.

So much of Dream Scenario‘s humor comes from the uncomfortable places and Kristoffer Borgli isn’t afraid to dig into the agonizing embarrassment to grind out farce. Its not all cringe comedy though, there’s a mix of physical schticks, visual gags, and absurdist scenarios that rile audiences.

I suggest trying to leave your empathy at the door for this one or you’ll find the mortification of Nicolas Cage too hard to swallow to enjoy the film’s nuances and hysterical nature.

Dream Scenario presents an exciting perspective on cancel culture. Paul Mathews doesn’t commit horrific violent attacks on half the world’s population, yet these people are terrorized by him in their sleep with no real explanation and only one person to blame no matter how innocent he may actually be. In this instance, Paul and his family’s life are drastically effected by the public’s disdain for this man they simultaneously all know but not know. He didn’t do anything wrong but people are hurt nonetheless. All it took was a swift shift in public opinion for his life to be ruined. Then out of the blue it all stops just as abruptly as it started.

Nicolas Cage, Michael Cera discussing the book near the end of the film
(L-R) Nicolas Cage, Michael Cera Credit: Courtesy of A24

This same scenario happens everyday, in the age of the smartphone plenty of average people are stoved into the spotlight for moments of odd notoriety only for it to fall away and their lives be forever changed but not in the ways we think. Recognizable with no protection.

At the Q&A following the premiere of Dream Scenario at TIFF on September 9th, Nicolas Cage and Kristoffer Borgli talked about being raised by professors and how there was this ever-present worry about the students turning on you, discrediting you and taking everything you’ve worked for away. Although people like Jordan Peterson might deserve such treatment, Dream Scenario serves as a cautionary tale about overzealous persecution.

I love the progression of the story and how far Borgli takes reality by dragging in Silicon Valley and LA influencer culture. The introduction of technology that can mimic the accident of Paul Mathews dream invasion and the mock press surrounding it is a mix between a Black Mirror episode and something the writers of The Simpsons might have written. And the closing of the film is touching in a way that resonates and puts a well-rounded spin on Cage’s performance.

Written by Isobel Grieve

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