Nicholas Cage is far from boring. Known for his rambunctious, madcap roles, the actor is the subject of cult worship amongst disciples of fringe cinema. Cage has played zany criminals, ghoulish bloodsuckers and skull-faced superheroes. So charged is Cage with camp insanity that he even played a heightened version of himself in 2022’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. Yet, in Kristoffer Borgli’s offbeat drama: Dream Scenario Cage is anything but insane, at least at first blush.
Dream Scenario centres on Paul Matthews (Cage) — an average nobody, a father, a husband and a college professor of little repute. Paul is not content with his mediocrity, obstinate in his desire to be a beloved family man and recognised in his field of evolutionary biology. But any of his efforts to cinch recognition from his peers leave Paul looking woefully pitiable to the point of repulsiveness. The unbeknown key to adulation, however, comes when Paul starts appearing in people’s dreams.
The film opens in a dream. Paul is raking autumn leaves in their backyard while his youngest daughter, Sophie (played by Lily Bird), sits idly scrolling on her phone. The tranquil scene erupts when random objects begin falling from the sky, shattering the patio table, before Sophie is lifted into the sky by forces unknown, as she begs her for father’s help. When Sophie relays her dream back around the breakfast table, Paul is dumbfounded by dream-Paul’s passivity in the situation, cloyingly asking her if she thinks he is really the kind of dad that would react like that in real life. Rebuked by his wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson) for making his daughter feel guilty over her dreams and met with total ambivalence by Sophie, Paul is left utterly gormless.
Cage trades in his typical idiosyncratic bravado for a distinctly more austere and understated performance, redolent of his collaboration with Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation (2002). As patriarchs go, Paul isn’t much of one. He does not shy from domesticity and unashamedly sports a glimmering bald spot to go with his wire-frame spectacles and half-zip fleece. Cage does have his moments of buffoonery but they are used to tasteful and purposeful effect. As with many Kaufman-esque male heroes, Paul's fragile masculinity and virile inadequacy are both a source of comedy and mortification.
On premise alone, Dream Scenario is funny from the off, but it becomes completely steeped in uncomfortable hilarity as Paul begins appearing in more and more people’s dreams. At first people are unsure who this nondescript dream interceptor is but before long pieces begin to fall into place and Paul becomes a household name. Though Paul claims not to be fame hungry he does very little to shy from the spotlight. However, dream-Paul’s meek negligence only serves as a reflective surface for the real life Paul’s true deficiencies. The Jonze/Kaufman comparisons abound as the film unfolds, giving rise to bizarro scenes and absurd encounters that Paul finds himself increasingly lacking in control over, including a memorable encounter with a New York marketing yuppy played by the inimitable Michael Cera, who provides an abbreviated yet surprisingly refreshing performance.
Though the film’s turns are never quite unexpected, each one feels thematically appropriate and are met with gleeful amusement as they ratchet up the feverish tension of its initially straightforward premise. It is clear where Norwegian director Kristoffer Borgli takes his visual and narrative inspirations. Despite its Midwestern setting and deeply American themes, Dream Scenario has its roots in European arthouse cinema — a la the awkward charm and striking cinematography of Roy Andersson/Ruben Östlund. The film bears much of the same unsettling DNA of the Borgli’s previous 2023 Norwegian Language film Sick of Myself. Perhaps the film's weakest moments arrive in its third act which slightly resemble Todd Field’s 2022 film, Tár (itself an ode to European cinema), with an unexpected foray into the subject of ‘cancel culture’. Despite slight lapses in depth during this section, it does not distract as it heads towards its tender conclusion.
Like all the best dreams, there is a sweetness at the heart of Dream Scenario’s bewildering and unsettling core. It could perhaps be previous Spike Jonze collaborator, Owen Palett’s, quirky yet mournful score, or maybe it’s Nicholson’s warm and nuanced performance as Janet and her character's complicated relationship with Paul. It is easy to mock or shun people like Paul, but when their feelings of inadequacy fester and bubble so violently that the grips on reality go flying into space, all you can do is laugh until you cry.
Cover image: A24/Square Peg
Miles Ribeiro is a freelance arts and culture writer. He has written for FTWeekend, Screenrant and The Fence.