Dream Scenario review: Nicolas Cage has a nightmare with cancel culture and mob rule

Chris Tilly
Nicolas Cage in Dream Scenario.A24

Dream Scenario is a high-concept comedy that slowly turns into a nightmare, but one that’s consistently entertaining, and powered by a truly great Nicolas Cage performance.

Cage is a truly unique performer, acting in a style that he calls “western kabuki.” Sometimes he’s understated, with Leaving Las Vegas, The Weather Man, and Joe examples of low-key Cage. But more-often-than-not he dials his acting up to 11, in films like Raising Arizona, Face/Off, and more recently, Mandy.

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This new movie gives him the opportunity to do both, with much of the narrative playing out in reality. But sequences also taking place in dreams, where logic doesn’t exist, and Cage can go for broke.

The result is one of his best performances, in a film that has lots to say about the cult of celebrity in the modern era.

What is Dream Scenario about?

Cage plays Paul Matthews, a tenured professor as Osler, who specialises in evolutionary biology. When we meet him, Matthews is teaching his students about zebras. But it’s clear this seemingly meek man believes he’s meant for something more.

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Paul also appears to be happily married to Janet (Julianne Nicholson). But while their relationship is sweet and their love tender, they aren’t quite connecting. And communicating even less. Much of that is down to Paul himself, who is neurotic, insecure, and frequently crippled by self-doubt.

Then something strange happens. As Paul bumps into an old flame who has been dreaming about him. Then hears from a friend who has experienced something similar. And soon it becomes clear that the world is seeing Paul Matthews when they sleep.

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The dream becomes a nightmare

He isn’t doing anything particularly memorable in those dreams, neither intervening or involving himself; a passive observer of the strange places our subconscious takes us. But he’s nevertheless there. And everyone has noticed him. Which changes everything for Paul, turning him into a celebrity literally overnight. Something he’s clearly ill-equipped to deal.

The fact that he’s a passenger in these dreams upsets Paul, giving him something of an existential crisis. But then the fame goes to his head, with this deeply uncool man suddenly becoming appealing, to his kids, to his students, and to much of America.

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This is where the film has fun with social media, and the influencer phenomenon. Michael Cera plays the head of a marketing agency called ‘Thoughts,’ which pairs brands with “unconventional” celebrities. And sees an opportunity to monetize Paul, drawing up big plans for their new client, involving Barrack Obama, and Sprite.

But then things turn. As Paul is no longer an observer in people’s dreams. Instead, he starts appearing in the world’s nightmares, assaulting, torturing, and even sometimes killing the dreamer.

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Nicolas Cage is superb

Which blows up his life, Paul losing his job, and his wife, and those commercial opportunities, with Obama out, and the likes of Joe Rogen, Jordan Peterson, and Tucker Carlson suddenly knocking on his door.

It’s smartly satirical stuff, turning a takedown of passing fame into a rumination on cancel culture. As well as the dangers of mob rule, when the world decides it’s had enough of Paul Matthews.

And Cage is just the right man to be at the center of this storm. The actor has been the subject of countless memes, so its no stretch to believe that his face could become so ubiquitous.

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The walk he’s chosen for Paul Matthews – and the smile – are hilarious, capturing both the character’s narcissism, and his vulnerability. When he goes into Freddy Krueger mode, we’re looking at classic Cage, bordering on the terrifying. While his character’s apology video has to be seen to believed.

The Verdict: Is Dream Scenario good?

Writer-director Kristoffer Borgli tackled the desire for – and price of – fame in his previous film, Sick of Myself. And he interrogates similar themes here.

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But Dream Scenario is a bigger story, told on a larger canvas, with themes that are universal. Paul is a monster at times, but a sympathetic one. So when the townsfolk come at his with pitchforks and flaming torches, you can’t help but feel for him and his plight.

Borgli also likes to guide his audience into uncomfortable scenarios, and there are moments that Dream Scenario is so anxiety-induing and cringeworthy that you’ll be watching through your fingers. Though laughing nevertheless.

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The film feels a little disjointed at times. While there are moments where the people around Paul act in ways that don’t ring true. But his relationship with Janet injects warmth into the story, and ends up being both the heart, and soul, of the film.

Dream Scenario score: 4/5

Dream Scenario is a sharp satire that straddles genres, starting funny, veering into drama, briefly turning scary, then ending with a fair amount of tragedy. But if you like movies that defy both categorization – and convention – it’s a wild ride; one that’s elevated by a fearless Nic Cage performance.

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Dream Scenario screened at Fantastic Fest, gets a limited US release on November 10, then goes nationwide on November 22. For more news and reviews from the festival, head here.

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About The Author

Chris Tilly is the TV and Movies Editor at Dexerto. He has a BA in English Literature, an MA in Newspaper Journalism, and over the last 20 years, he's worked for the likes of Time Out, IGN, and Fandom. Chris loves Star Wars, Marvel, DC, sci-fi, and especially horror, while he knows maybe too much about Alan Partridge. You can email him here: chris.tilly@dexerto.com.