This dank, unpleasant A24 comedy-drama starring Nicolas Cage is currently playing in theaters. But nobody is likely to break an ankle rushing out to see it.
The film’s potentially funny premise about a dull, professionally thwarted professor and all-around mediocrity who suddenly starts turning up in many random people’s dreams, which brings him a strange kind of fame and social significance, soon drifts off course and runs aground in a swamp of uninspired topicality and failed attempts at profundity.
Cage plays Paul Matthews, a tenured professor of evolutionary biology at a small college, who somehow arrived at this secure career eminence without ever publishing — God only knows how. He’s a negligible teacher as well, unable to get his students interested in the question of the zebra’s lack of camouflage in its mostly tan environment on African savannas. In short, as we all stare at the big image of a lone, exposed zebra on the classroom screen, Paul asks why the dynamic black-and-white stripes?
None of the students care, so Paul has to answer the question himself: in order to better its chances for survival, the zebra doesn’t need to blend in with the landscape, just with the herd. Predators won’t attack a whole herd, see. As long as a zebra matches the herd, and doesn’t stray away and call attention to itself, it’s relatively safe.
Get it? By this logic, Paul should be okay as long as he maintains a low profile at this small, undistinguished college, which should be easy because he’s a boring, underachieving schmo. At least, that’s the analogy the film is proposing. Though it doesn’t really make sense in Paul’s case, because humans aren’t much like zebras, and America isn’t really a culture in which it’s better to be remain anonymous and undistinguished. There are other cultures in which a proverb like “The tall poppy gets the chop” makes sense — I doubt it’s a coincidence that writer-director Kristoffer Borgli (Sick of Myself, DRIB) hails from social democratic Norway — but the US of A certainly isn’t one of them. To quote Talladega Nights, we’re more of a “if you ain’t first, you’re last” kinda place. And have organized our economy appropriately.
Plus, Paul doesn’t actually seem to be all that okay to begin with. He wanders through life trying and failing to be effectual in any way. His students and colleagues at the school as well as his wife, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), and two daughters all seem to have a kind of bored contempt for him. Later we’ll be encouraged by the narrative to feel bad, especially when Paul‘s personal life falls apart. But it’s hard to feel bad, because it looked pretty awful from the start.
And then suddenly, for no reason whatsoever, Paul starts appearing in random people’s dreams. At first he’s just wandering through their dreams, or standing around, playing no part in dramatic events or nightmarish attacks. As he starts getting recognized in public by people who’ve dreamt about him, he’s flattered and increasingly delighted by his strange popularity. Though he’s disturbed that, in dreams as in life, he’s a passive bystander, never doing anything interesting.
That soon changes. As his dream-invasions go viral and he becomes a bona fide media celebrity, he inevitably becomes part of somebody’s sex dream. When he meets the attractive young woman (Dylan Gelula) who’s been having recurring erotic dreams about him, she’s so obsessed she wants to reenact them with Paul in real life. It’s with a dull sense of knowing what’ll happen next in these cringe-comedy times that we watch Paul make an incompetent, flatulent mess of the whole thing and run away humiliated.
Paul’s life is so damp and depressing, he’s overcome by frequent spasms of irritation, resentment, and even rage. He’s sputteringly angry when he finally gets a meeting with what he assumes is a publisher interested in his long-unwritten academic book, but it turns out to be the young head of a viral marketing firm, played by Michael Cera. The big plan for Paul’s future career turns out to be publishing his autobiography about what it’s like to be famous for infiltrating people’s dreams. And possibly also endorsing Sprite, with the idea that Paul might eventually be able to bring the soft drink into people’s dreams as a kind of ultimate advertising campaign.
Consumer culture sure is bad and all-pervasive, isn’t it? This is the film’s level of topical commentary — about thirty years behind the curve when it comes to film alone.
The book deal and advertising campaign get shelved when the more aggressive side of Paul’s psychology begins to overtake his dull-bystander side in people’s dreams — again, for no apparent reason. But soon he’s being shunned by a public claiming to be traumatized by his sudden violent behavior toward them in their dreams.
This gives the film a further chance to make uninteresting topical points about “triggering,” and “cancel culture.” After this, only extreme right-wing media stars are interested in interviews with Paul, on the predictable subject of the absurdity of Paul’s cancellation.
And that’s more or less it. Sorry if this is somehow a spoiler, but the film continues to follow its dreary, downbeat logic leading to sad-sack Paul’s whole life, professional and personal, being wrecked by this unaccountable phenomenon. The end.
Nicolas Cage gets to extend his acting exertions as real-life and dream-life Paul, but we’ve seen Cage extend himself many times before in a lot flashier ways. And he can’t really overcome the basic inertia of the film, in which there are a lot of narrative events but somehow no momentum ever builds toward comedy lift-off. Norwegian writer-director Borgli seems, based on what I have read, to specialize in supposedly provocative dark comedies on topical subjects like consumer culture weirdness and alternate identities resulting in fame in postmodern culture. Just typing that sentence bores me stiff.
To be fair, I should note that Dream Scenario is getting very good reviews overall. So take a chance if you must, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
It’s too bad, because a really inventive comedy based on this premise could’ve been hilarious and insightful, if there were a latter-day writer-director like Preston Sturges, say. Oh, if only! Sturges had an ability to let his imagination go wild thinking of the social fallout of some fantastical catalyzing event.
Like, for example, the frantic results of a striving working-class guy who mistakenly thinks he’s won a contest and goes on an exuberant spending spree in Christmas in July (1940). Or in Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), the WWII homecoming of a sad sack who was discharged from the marines after only a month but is persuaded by some overenthusiastic soldiers to pretend to be a fellow battle-hardened veteran, which makes him so popular he might get elected mayor or lynched, depending on how things turn out. Or a young woman in a narrow-minded provincial town in Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), who goes out to a party for soldiers headed overseas and has such a great time she can’t remember anything, except that she’s now pregnant, and her family and friends generate a mad plot to save her from public disgrace with an elaborately faked and highly illegal “marriage by proxy.”
Sturges was making social commentary too. In the case of Hail the Conquering Hero, he was dealing with the sickening levels of hero-worship of the military in America, and its political as well as individual, personality-warping consequences. And he was doing it in ultrapatriotic times, while WWII was still being fought, which was incredibly daring of him. He wasn’t going after soft, obvious, sleep-inducing topics like “consumer culture.”
Sadly, there’s no such dynamic imagination at work in Dream Scenario.