Sunday, February 18, 2024

"Dream Scenario": review

Molly (Dylan Gelula) has been having intense sex dreams about Paul (Nicolas Cage).
Imagine that random people in your locality, then all over the world, start dreaming about you. At first, these dreams are fairly benign, with you appearing in people's imaginations as a passive observer. But as time goes on, the nature of the dreams changes, and you become a more proactive dream-character, sometimes engaging in intense sex with the dreamers, sometimes outright torturing and murdering them. Then one day, the dreams about you end. What happens to your life during that time? Celebrity has been forced upon you, bringing crazies and fangirls out of the woodwork. Some want to kill you; some want to fuck you. And as the dreams turn into nightmares, people become uncomfortable around you, as if you were actually raping and murdering them. It gets to the point where, if you're minding your own business in a restaurant, the server asks you to leave because you're making other customers uncomfortable. You have a job as a professor in a midrange college, and your students, who had initially treated you as a celebrity, stop attending your classes when the dreams become violent. You have a family, and they're suffering the effects of your fame and your infamy, too. What happens to your sanity? All of this is seemingly beyond your control.

That's the basic setup for "Dream Scenario," a 2023 dramedy by Norwegian director Kristoffer Borgli. The film stars Nicolas Cage, Julianne Nicholson, Michael Cera, Tim Meadows, Dylan Gelula, Lily Bird, Jessica Clement, Marnie McPhail, Krista Bridges, and Dylan Baker.

Cage is Paul Matthews, a put-upon professor of evolutionary biology, often a doormat for more-ambitious colleagues and associates. Paul is disturbed when he discovers people have been dreaming about him, starting with his younger daughter Sophie (Bird), who says that her dad does nothing in her dreams except passively witness events. At the beginning of the film, Sophie dreams she's being taken up into the sky while her dad merely stands there. Most of Paul's college students also report having dreams, and in every dream, Paul is merely an observer, whether the dream involves a raging earthquake, or a person painfully extracting his own tooth, or a dreamer who's being pursued by what appears to be a blood-soaked crazy person. Paul and his wife Janet (Nicholson) meet Claire (McPhail), an ex-girlfriend of Paul's who now works as a blogger. Paul and Claire later meet for coffee, with Paul being vaguely hopeful that Claire might want to rekindle a romance, but she just wants to ask Paul whether she can write about her dreams-with-Paul. Word of Claire's article gets out, and thousands of people suddenly recognize Paul as the person they've been dreaming about. Thousands more claim to recognize Paul, but this could just be a form of mass hysteria. One unstable man breaks into Paul's home, and when Paul starts working with an agency that wants to promote him as "the world's most interesting man," one of the young ladies at the agency, Molly (Gelula), confesses that her dreams of Paul are intense sexual fantasies. Tipsy after a night at a bar, the two retire to Molly's apartment, and she asks Paul to role-play her fantasy of him. As the scenario heats up, Paul accidentally farts, then comes in his pants and farts again, utterly ruining the moment. Paul, who had already had pangs of conscience about being with Molly, leaves in shame. The situation continues to intensify as people's dreams curdle into nightmares, and Paul suddenly finds himself no longer a celebrity, but an object of hatred and loathing. Vandals spray-paint LOSER on his SUV, and when he attempts to sit quietly at a restaurant, the server tells him he needs to leave. When Paul refuses, a burly man walks up and spits in his plate of food, causing a brawl. Paul's daughters are being teased and bullied at school, and his wife eventually ejects him from her home, where she's lived since childhood. How can a scenario like this end? I won't spoil it for you, but things take a bizarre turn into science fiction, and the movie ends on a sad, poignant note.

As a comedy, "Dream Scenario" has maybe one laugh-out-loud moment: the abortive sex scene with Molly, in which everything goes intestinally and urethrally wrong for Paul. It's the one shining instance of broad comedy in a movie with decidedly Scandinavian sensibilities when it comes to tone and pacing. Director Borgli, who reminds me a lot of Ruben Östlund (here, here, and here), is good at creating awkward tension; I felt exceedingly uncomfortable while watching much of the film, so this wasn't a moviegoing experience that I enjoyed all that much. The actors all hit their marks; I remember Julianne Nicholson best for her role on "Law & Order," and she assumes the role of the pressured and possibly unfaithful wife well. The scriptwriting also does a good job of making you feel the injustice of being Paul: he didn't willfully project himself into people's heads, so in what sense is the dream scenario his fault? At the same time, the consequences of fame and a fickle public rain down not only upon him but also upon his wife and daughters, who all experience ramifications at work and school.

It should be noted that not everyone dreams of Paul including, for much of the movie, Paul himself. Paul eventually does have a nightmare in which he's hunted down by an aggressive version of himself who's armed with a crossbow. Meanwhile, wife Janet never once dreams of Paul (at one point, she asks why that might be), and Paul's elder daughter Hannah (Clement) doesn't seem to dream about him, either. Paul's friend at the university, Brett (Meadows), also doesn't dream of Paul, and it's implied that Paul's colleague Richard (Baker) likewise has no such dreams, but Richard's wife Carlota (Bridges) has been having horrible nightmares. So the nature of the dream-phenomenon remains vague: how much is created and controlled by Paul, and how much is just random? Such questions seem beside the point: "Dream Scenario" feels more like a character study, with the dreams acting as a catalyst for discussion.

In terms of grand themes, the most obvious one is the fickle nature of fame, which the movie explores avidly, depicting how a famous person easily loses control of his life, reputation, and public image, and showing how the people who worshiped him one minute can viciously turn on him and vandalize his car in a heartbeat—even if he hasn't done anything to them. There are also related themes like cancel culture: Paul's incident at the restaurant is a violent version of what happened with Sarah Huckabee Sanders's ejection from a restaurant because of what the owners thought of her, not because of anything specific that she had done to them. Sex fantasies are also toyed with—not just in the awkward scene between Paul and Molly, but also in a scene in which Janet confesses a weird fantasy she has of Paul rescuing her from a dangerous situation while he's wearing that overlarge Talking Heads suit. Another major theme is a direct critique of college students who are overly sensitive and in need of "safe spaces" these days; the movie takes a less-than-sympathetic view of such kids. Finally, the title "Dream Scenario" itself has several layers of meaning, the most literal being the "dream scenario" we see playing out before us, but it's also many people's dream scenario to become famous, and this happens to the unremarkable Paul without any effort on his part.

Having seen three of Ruben Östlund's films, I think I have a bead on the Scandinavian cinematic sensibility: comedies are never purely broad comedies (as you might find in surreal English or zany French films); there's a confusing mix of tones ranging from humorous to serious to somber. Kristoffer Borgli is Norwegian, and Ruben Östlund is Swedish, but they both overlap in terms of wanting to make audiences uncomfortable, using a film's story to hold a mirror up to the viewers in an attempt to make them see the things they hate about themselves. I was frequently shifting around uncomfortably while watching "Dream Scenario." Paul Matthews is an ineffective nebbish: a former associate steals a crucial idea of his and writes a book about it while he passively lets her do it. As Paul fumes with resentment, the dreamers all around him start having nightmares, implying he does have at least some control over what others are experiencing. At the same time, the whole dream-phenomenon starts and ends utterly randomly, implying there are things about this weird psychic connection that are utterly beyond Paul's control. Despite Paul's lack of control, his wife thinks he ought to apologize to everyone for what's happening, which frustrates Paul. Watching Paul's helplessness made me think of moments in my own life—even very recent moments—when I could have been more principled or had more backbone.

In all, I came away thinking Nicolas Cage and the rest of the cast did a fine job in all of their roles, but I have to wonder whether Scandinavian-style comedies really work for me. They do and they don't. A film is supposed to make you feel things: that's its primary purpose—the evocation of emotion. And I don't mind at all if a film also ends up being thought-provoking. There's nothing wrong with being cerebral. But if the primary emotion is one of discomfort, is the viewing experience worth it? I can't give "Dream Scenario" a hearty recommendation. I respected it, but I'm unsure how much I liked it.


John Mac said...

Interesting. The plot's concept seems uniquely creative, which is nice in a world full of remakes. Based on your review, I'd watch it.

Hmm, it just occurred to me that the film is like a parody of how Trump lives in so many heads rent-free.

Kevin Kim said...

I can see how a conservative interpretation of the film might be that people will blame and cancel you based purely on erroneous mental notions of you and not on your actual actions.