When you enter middle age, you become invisible to certain segments of the population. Young men and women no longer regard you as a possible romantic partner. If you maintained some vestiges of your former attractiveness, you’ll be told that you look good … “for your age”. Younger colleagues don’t revere you for your wisdom and experience; they quietly wonder when you’re retiring so they can take your job. Unlike Far Eastern culture where elders are (allegedly) revered, being middle-aged in America means slowly falling into obscurity. As Neil Young sings, “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”
As Dream Scenario, the latest film from writer-director Kristoffer Borgli, opens, Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage) has clearly been shrouded in his invisibility for awhile. His students talk and laugh among themselves as he delivers his college lectures about biological evolution. The local academic intelligencia never invite him to their dinner parties. A former colleague steals one of Paul’s ideas for an article in an academic journal. His wife coaches him on how to assert himself about this academic theft, but his efforts fall flat.
Paul is all bark and no bite, and the bark is mostly a whimper. He’s the type of person who seems to have no control over the outcome of his life. He’s indecisive and hates himself for it. Life has a way of simply happening to him.
Then one day, Paul achieves notarity in the oddest of ways: people begin dreaming about him. Not just people in his inner circle of family and friends. People all over the country begin to see Paul in their dreams. Ironically, Paul is just an observer, a spectator in the dreams of others, which is perfectly on brand for the man we’ve briefly gotten to know. He rescues no one in peril (including his own daughter); he doesn’t impact the course of the dream. He simply wanders aimlessly in the background in much the way he wanders through middle age.
While A24, the production company behind Dream Scenario, is known for it’s dread-inducing horror movies and edgy thrillers, this film is an absurdist comedy shot through with dark humor. The premise isn’t a jumping off point for a drama with life-and-death stakes (although it does take a darker turn as the film unfolds). Dream Scenario instead examines what it means to be “famous” in our current social media culture. You don’t need talent; you don’t need skills. You just need to be recognizable, and Paul has certainly become that, literally overnight. (The scene where a young, Gen-Z advertising firm tries to recruit Paul to sell Sprite is one of the funniest scenes of 2023.)
The film has plenty to say about the double-edged sword of fame. Paul wants to be respected in his field. He wants to publish a book on evolutionary biology. Instead, everyone knows him as the guy they dreamed about last night. He’s famous, but not in the WAY he wants to be famous. It’s like getting a million likes on TikTok for falling off a ladder in a spectacular fashion. The man who only wanted to be noticed begins to wish for his invisibility to return.
Nicolas Cage is a marvel throughout the film. If you’re expecting a big performance with crazy line readings, you will be surprised by the quiet, nuanced Cage at work in this film. With his receding hairline, beard and glasses, he bears no resemblance to the action hero from Con Air (1997) or the recent horror film Mandy. He’s channeling his quieter films like Joe (2013) and Pig (2019), but without the somber results.
Cage has stated in interviews that he doesn’t chew scenery or give hammy performances on some personal whim. He simply gives directors what they ask for, and if many of his memorable performances are “big”, it’s because filmmakers asked him to perform at high volume. Kristoffer Borgli wisely sought a quiet, funny performance and got one.
Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas is known for its “Secret Screenings”, films on the festival slate that are not identified until the moment before they are shown to the audience. Tickets are bought blindly with faith in the programmers to deliver something buzzworthy to the festival goers. Dream Scenario certainly did just that, making its U.S. premiere at the festival. Given its strange premise and absurd execution, it may be too eccentric to be an awards contender, but it’s one of my favorite films of the year. It hits theaters at Thanksgiving. Don’t miss it.