Over the span of his 120-plus film career, Nicolas Cage has been a lot of things — but he may have never been as flat-out hilarious as he is in Dream Scenario.
Sporting a balding pate, a gray woolly beard, dated wire-rims and a closetful of dad sweaters, he’s a schlubby sight to behold as Paul Matthews, a tenured college professor who, for some bizarre reason, starts popping up in random dreamers’ nightmares. Much to his chagrin, his presence amounts to that of a casual onlooker, never intervening to rescue them from assorted catastrophes or chase away the monsters.
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And that’s just the leap-off point for this gleefully dark social satire, which savagely skewers our click-driven world of insta-celebrities and cancel-culture righteousness. Marking an auspicious English-language film debut for Norwegian director-writer Kristoffer Borgli, whose last film was black comedy Sick of Myself, the production gives us a Cage character we haven’t really seen before, in whiny victim mode, and he turns it into a master class in reactive comic acting.
Co-produced by filmmaker Ari Aster, who knows a thing or two about angst-ridden surrealism (Beau Is Afraid, Midsommar), the A24 release is certain to go viral ahead of its Nov. 10 arrival in theaters, and Cage’s performance deserves to generate serious awards season buzz.
An evolutionary biology prof who keeps threatening to write the science book that will rock the academic world, the remarkably unremarkable family man would appear to be the last person to crash the subconscious of those unknown to him. At first, he doesn’t mind the newfound attention, although he’s irritated by the fact that his passive role in those dreams is essentially that of an “inadequate loser.”
Still, as those nocturnal cameos increase exponentially, putting Paul at the center of a dream epidemic, social media marketing millennials come knocking, with Michael Cera pitching Sprite product placement in Paul’s future nocturnal appearances. Things then take a turn when marketing assistant Molly (a terrific Dylan Gelula) confesses that Paul’s appearances in her dreams are anything but benign, leading to a would-be sexually charged waking-hour reenactment with side-splittingly cringe-worthy results.
Of course, this being a Cage vehicle, after all, it shouldn’t be surprising that his appearances begin to turn increasingly malevolent in nature, eventually veering head-on into Mandy territory, with cinematographer Ben Loeb again on hand to capture all that over-the-top menace. The dark turn soon necessitates the intervention of trauma coaches, proceeding to turn Paul into a pariah, and the cancel mentality that ensues extends to his already-tenuous relationship with this wife, Janet (an underutilized Julianne Nicholson).
While on the subject of dreams, Cage and Borgli make for a comedy dream team, spurring each other on to edgier extremes while never losing sight of the cautionary target at which the film so wickedly takes aim. Also serving as his own editor, Borgli keeps the crazy energy percolating with playful jump cuts and soundbite-sized flashbacks, as the filmed-in-Toronto production finds a unifying constant in the seemingly steady snowfall seen outside every window.
But mainly you’ll be unable to take your eyes off Cage, whose self-pitying nebbish attempts to wrestle an ounce of control back into his runaway existence are pure comedy gold. He inhabits the role with the same immersive relish that costume designer Natalie Bronfman brings to a wardrobe that would have been right at home back in the ’90s, and which Paul has been wearing ever since, right down to those academic clunky shoes.
If Cage has somehow not yet managed to worm his way into our collective unconscious, Dream Scenario is a cinch to seal the deal.
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