tiff 2023

In Dream Scenario, Nicolas Cage Confronts the Memes

At its best, Cage’s new film works as a parable for acquiescing to other people’s reality — a conceit that gets very specific when it comes to him. Photo: A24/B)A24

“In the name of Thespis, this was no acting,” Nicolas Cage joked after the TIFF premiere of his new film Dream Scenario. “I have the life experience.”

This was an exaggeration. As far as I know, Cage has never suffered the same fate as his Dream Scenario character: Paul Matthews, a frustrated academic who starts inexplicably popping up in strangers’ dreams. Paul, a “perfectly average Mr. Nobody,” is not really the star of these dreams. He’s more like a featured extra, looking on silently as the sleepers start floating in air or losing their teeth. This naturally makes him incredibly famous overnight, even though, as he notes, he hasn’t actually done anything. But what are deeds compared to renown?

Dream Scenario, from Norwegian director Kristoffer Borgli, has an obvious debt to the offbeat satire of Charlie Kaufman; you can also see a little bit of Ari Aster, one of the film’s producers, in its use of darkly comic violence. (Borgli and Aster joined Cage at TIFF, which the actor was permitted to attend after A24, the film’s distributor, agreed to SAG’s interim agreement.) Cage being Cage, even his performance as a normal suburban dad has fascinating undertones. It’s full of those weird little tics we do to make each other comfortable, but his reactions are always just a touch too big or too quick, as if Paul learned how to act like a human from studying them in textbooks, rather than being one himself.

Paul may claim that he’s not responsible for what the imaginary version of himself gets up to, though that doesn’t stop him from trying to take advantage of his newfound fame. And as his dream-self begins to take on a more aggressive cast, he’s confronted with the unpleasant realization that his public image lives in the minds of other people, completely divorced from his own reality. (The dream appearances may also reflect latent flaws in his personality, his passivity, and his rage.) At its best, Dream Scenario works as a parable for what it’s like for anyone to live in close proximity to other people: To what extent does being in a society mean acquiescing to others’ reality just to keep the peace?

Still, this general conceit gets very specific when it comes to Nicolas Cage. Countless strangers carrying around an idea of you in their heads — this is not dissimilar to what it’s like being a celebrity. Particularly a celebrity like Cage, who has long existed alongside an internet-created, air-quotes version of himself screaming like a maniac. At the premiere, he compared the film’s plot to the effect the video “Nicolas Cage Losing His Shit,” a clip reel that blew up on YouTube in 2010, had on his sense of self.

“I might have been the first actor who woke up one morning and somebody had put a montage of me freaking out in different movies online, and it went viral around the world. I kept looking at it like, What is happening to me? That’s not how I meant it. It kept growing exponentially, and nothing I could do could stop it,” Cage said. Ever since, he’s sought to channel the loss of control he felt at that moment into his art. Dream Scenario gave him the opportunity. “I thought, Now I can turn this lead into a little bit of gold.”

Of course, Dream Scenario also works on another level, and this one will likely prove far more controversial. Paul is a college professor, and most of the people we see afflicted by his increasingly menacing dream-self are his own undergraduates. This prompts a lot of dialogue about “trauma” and “lived experience,” and unlike, say, in Tár, you do get the sense that Borgli is grinding his own ax about kids today. This wasn’t a turn-off for me: The film also laughs at the way cancel-culture outrage becomes grist for the conservative fame economy, and besides, a lot of the jokes — in particular, one in which a gym full of students undergo exposure therapy to Paul’s physical form — are quite funny.

But it doesn’t work for everyone. “Wish I could snip every scattered line suggesting the surreal premise is an allegory for cancel culture, which makes no sense and adds nothing to what is otherwise a warped portrait of middle-age malaise,” my colleague Alison Willmore wrote (speaking of culture wars) on Bluesky. And there will be no getting around this angle on the press trail, as Borgli has been open about the fact that the film was inspired by a series of proto-cancel-culture scandals in academia. “I was intrigued by these professors who couldn’t recognize what they were accused of,” he said after the premiere. “Crimes that were all fabricated in the minds of others.”

All this runs the risk of Dream Scenario turning from a satire of the culture wars, into an object of them. Which would be a shame, as it would overshadow one of the most enjoyable performances of Cage’s late-career renaissance. But that might also be appropriate. Just like a celebrity’s star image, a film has no value by itself; it only has power once it enters the minds of viewers. In other words, the dream version is the real version.

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In Dream Scenario, Nicolas Cage Confronts the Memes