There’s an interesting angle for how Dream Scenario tries to evoke a surreal comedy in the repetition of Nicolas Cage. You lose control over your identity when your face becomes the subject of online memes and decorative pillows. As powerful as Cage is as an actor, this aspect of his legacy seems to have taken a life all its own. It’s an aspect that’s both fascinating and frightening, even if this film only manages to scratch the surface of this concept.
The premise is alluring for the draw of Cage playing Paul, a washed-up professor who starts randomly appearing in the dreams of others. His appearance is passive among nightmares, where he’ll stroll through gravity shifting or a building collapsing. Despite this concerning aspect, Paul basks in this fame to achieve his dream of writing a book about ants. Unfortunately, his ventures into the world of fame through dream virality spin out of control when the dreams turn darker and Paul’s image shifts to the fringes of society.
Paul is not without some heart. His relationship with his wife, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), is one that is heartbreaking to see crumble. Janet, having not had dreams about Paul, feels she’s being neglected in this strange event despite it being entirely out of Paul’s control. He’s still an insecure man in how he struggles to grasp fame for his own gain and stumbles into a sexual affair that comes to an abrupt and absurd climax. He also finds small moments of reliability with the college dean Brett (Tim Meadows) and watches how fragile his social climbing is when finally reaching the ranks of getting invited to the dinner parties of fellow teacher Richard (Dylan Baker).
As much as Paul gets lost in his own fame dreams, the film also gets lost in trying to stage an allegory for the 15 seconds of online fame. It’s somewhat merciful that the film settles on some blunter stagings as to how it relates to late-stage capitalism. An easy-to-read scene is when Paul meets with a PR firm managed by the upstart Millennial, Trent (Michael Cera). The discussion quickly descends into getting Paul’s dreams associated with Obama and Sprite, something that Paul scoffs at but considers with how there’s no other route to proceed. When Paul’s dreams turn sour, the talks shift to associations with Joe Rogan and Jordan Peterson.
The allegory starts to crumble in the third act as Paul appears as a violent psychopath in the dreams of others. As the story shifts into featuring Paul’s cancel-culture arc, it sputters into framing Paul as being unable to control the narrative. The fable shifts even further when dreams inexplicably become commodified by breakthrough technology, where bought-and-paid-for influencers drown out Paul’s uniqueness. The good news is that the film still manages to find its heart by wrapping it around what matters most beyond the obsession with attention, where it’s no good to gain eyeballs if it’s not the ones who will love you.
Dream Scenario is an interesting idea with some funny stuff to do with Nic Cage, but not enough to be a robust commentary on cancel culture. Some of that failing allegory can be forgivable, considering how much Cage puts into his performance. Everything from his dry delivery in dreams to his most comical of faces amid premature ejaculation is hilarious and had me snickering rather loudly. So, while the script might not have a firm grasp on its commentary, Cage certainly has a firm grasp on this character. Watching him play around as a balding loser, trying and failing to feel worthy, is a lot of fun and highly relatable, especially for Cage experiencing a similar sensation of uncontrollable iconography.