Nicolas Cage absolutely nails the part in this wonderfully weird and entertaining impossible-to-define mix of comedy, horror, philosophy and heaven knows what else. From the strangest of premises writer-director Kristoffer Borgli (Sick of Myself) and producer Ari Aster fashion an irresistibly haunting slice of something or other. Cage is spot on as Paul Matthews, clearly one of the world’s most boring people, a college professor whose students barely stir themselves to listen as he waffles on about zebras’ protective camouflage; a nerdy geeky guy fostering all sorts of late-career resentments (someone seems to have nicked his big idea): and a husband and a dad irredeemably without spark or charisma as he wanders around in his fluffy-hooded anorak.
And yet somehow this is the man – Paul Matthews – who suddenly starts appearing in the dreams of millions of unconnected people. And in these dreams, highly appropriately, he’s generally standing there doing absolutely nothing whatsoever in the moment of need of whoever is actually dreaming it. But oddly, once people start making the connection with Paul, he becomes some kind of celebrity. And poor chap, after a lifetime without giving off the slightest hint of magnetism, he understandably finds all the attention distinctly flattering. Suddenly all those bored students are queuing up for selfies with him and he’s whisked off to an agency where all the talk is of marketing his sudden and extraordinary status.
But that’s when it starts turning sinister. The assistant at the company has been getting those Paul Matthews dreams as well, except in them he’s ravishing her – a little scenario she’s intent on acting out for real. The result is the film’s funniest moment. Absolutely hilarious in fact. But then it all starts to change. In millions of dreams, Matthews is now the bogeyman, the stalker, the murderer, the menace – and his whole life is cancelled around him with personally devastating consequences. He’s the demon at home; he’s reviled at work; he’s persona absolutely non grata at school; and when his poor traumatised students are getting a bit of therapy, in one of the best scenes, he scares them all off simply by walking towards them.
If you were a professor like Matthews, you might take a stab at explaining it all – this sudden eruption of a collective unconscious, suddenly, inexplicably focused on one rather strange individual in a nightmare of toxic celebrity. Maybe it makes sense. In fact, it kind of makes sense. But this is a film determined to stay well ahead of any flickerings of comprehension we might have along the way. In a super-odd coda, it ups the stakes again – and possibly goes just a little too far for the good of the film.
But there’s no doubting Dream Scenario – as it descends into nightmare scenario – is a wildly entertaining, provocative and utterly original film, with Cage just perfect as the lead.
You suspect that obscurity is a big part of the point of it all, but it’s never less than intriguing whatever odd direction it darts down.