Without anyone really noticing, the nebbishy, uncool professor has somehow become the “it” protagonist this prestige movie season.
At the Toronto Film Festival this past September, Jeffery Wright’s uptight, student-offending tenured English prof faced off against Paul Giamatti’s malodorous boarding school adjunct in the films that topped the fest’s much ballyhooed People’s Choice Award. (Cord Jefferson’s American Fiction, starring Wright, ultimately edged out Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers, starring Giamatti; the People’s Choice winner has gone on to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards each of the last 12 years.)
DREAM SCENARIO ★★1/2 (2.5/4 stars)
Now we have the noisiest entrant in current filmdom’s unexpected Dowdiest Lecturer of the Year contest: Nicolas Cage’s Paul Matthews, a passive and flatulent Evolutionary Biology teacher at a leafy liberal arts college who rewrites what it means to become an “overnight celebrity” in Dream Scenario, the new social satire, comedy, horror mash-up from writer-director Kristoffer Borgli (last year’s Cannes entrant Sick of Myself).
While often intellectually engaging and occasionally howlingly funny (the film’s outrageously honest sex scene is one for the books), Borgli’s English-language debut rarely feels like more than a souped-up episode of The Twilight Zone.
The film never quite harnesses the psychological power that lies beneath its wicked concept: The World’s Least Notable Fellow™ ends showing up in the dreams of people across the world, first as a passive observer, occasionally as a lurking lover, and finally as a serial killer. Think A Nightmare on Elm Street with Wallace Shawn as Freddy Krueger.
In sharp contrast to the richly realized pedagogues embodied by Wright and Giamatti, Cage’s Paul feels more like construct than person; he was a meme well before he literally becomes one. His relationship with his wife— played by the perennially steely Mare of Easttown Emmy winner Julianne Nicholson—lacks much texture or history. While one of the major third act complications involves Paul’s desperate need to see his youngest daughter’s recital, Paul’s connections to his children (played by Jessica Clement and Lily Bird) seem facile and undeveloped.
The whole world that the Matthews family inhabits is barely lived in— a college town painted in empty autumn hues conjured from a recruiter’s speech. Paul is an idea of a man, in an idea of a place, in a movie that never fully grounds or explores its own grand idea. This becomes an even bigger issue as Paul behaves increasingly irrationally and the film becomes commentary on the nature of identity in a society obsessed with vitality.
Recalling the existentially burdened pair of dweebs he played in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, Cage is most engaging when tasked with being physical. The shuffling, parka-wearing lope in the background of people’s dreams has the same slow menacing authority of a manager coming out to remove a faltering pitcher mid-game.
But unlike his best recent work (from Warner Herzog’s 2009 Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans to his masterful turn in Michael Sarnoski’s 2021 Pig), Cage isn’t burrowing into the soul of his character and coming out some escape hatch on the other side. Because Borgli’s script doesn’t give him material to build those things from the bottom up, he’s left indicating Paul’s loneliness and disconnection through exaggerated gestures.
Borgli does have a wonderful feel for the free-flowing physics of the dream realm, though perhaps not their Freudian intensity. Instead, he pitches his film as a satire of empty celebrity in the age of viral marketing. The efforts result in some inspired bits of comedy—Michael Cera plays the head of a digital marketing and content company (it’s called “Thoughts?”) who wants to harness Paul’s unlikely renown to sell Sprite—but they are not nearly as biting or incisive as the director imagines them to be.
Dream Scenario might have worked better as a character study, which is clearly what Cage wants it to be. But that would require real characters, whereas Borgli gives us some compelling sketches, which is especially problematic when the film expects us to be invested in the outcome as things inevitably go sideways.
Even when they are engrossingly rendered and possess a strange beauty, there’s nothing quite as boring as another person’s dreams, particularly when the individuals having them aren’t really people at all.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.