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'Dream Scenario': An Anti-Beta Soyboy Manifesto
Nicolas Cage is perilously miscast in this right wing fantasy.
Nearly fifteen years ago, there was a viral story about thousands of people who had all allegedly dreamed about the same stranger, known colloquially as “This Man.” The entire thing turned out to be a hoax by an Italian marketer, but it still seemed like it was only a matter of time until someone turned it into a film. In fact, at one point Sam Raimi was going to produce a horror movie called This Man, to be written and directed by Bryan Bertino, who was coming off his big hit The Strangers. For whatever reason, though, that movie never got made.
What we’ve gotten instead is Dream Scenario, a sadistic, conservative new dramedy from writer/director Kristoffer Borgli that uses the basic premise of “This Man” to explore all the ways in which it sees liberals as pussies.
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The accidental dream-invader in question is Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage), a professor of evolutionary biology. When we meet Paul, it’s immediately apparent that he’s an ineffectual, hapless nebbish. He’s envious of former grad school peers who have published academic papers while he struggles to write a book of his own (about the scintillating subject of ants). His students don’t seem to like or respect him much, and he has to struggle to get the attention of his two daughters. When Paul and his wife, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), run into one of his exes at the theater one evening, she says she’s been having dreams about Paul, and asks to meet him for coffee to discuss. Janet expresses jealousy, concerned that the ex might still have feelings for Paul; Paul placates Janet not by saying that he wouldn’t cheat on her, but by pointing out that his jittery disposition means he couldn’t cheat on her - and she agrees. He’s disappointed to realize that the former flame does not still carry a torch for him, although that disappointment seems to spring from his bruised ego, and not from lust.
The ex, Paul soon learns, isn’t the only one who’s been seeing him in her dreams: Soon he’s at the center of an inexplicable phenomenon in which almost everyone seems to be dreaming about him. Despite Janet’s misgivings, Paul quickly embraces his newfound fame, hoping it will finally allow him to become the celebrated biologist he’s always dreamed of being.
At first, Paul’s appearance in the dreams in harmless - he literally stands there and does nothing while surrealistic experiences play out around him. Paul is upset that society’s collective subconsciousness paints him as being so inactive; later, after he indulges his pride, still doesn’t get exactly the results he wants, and lets his temper get the best of him, the nature of his role in people’s dreams changes, and the attention lavished on Paul goes from being fairly benign to almost exclusively malevolent. The implication is that the dreams are an accurate reflections of Paul’s character, and that their tone changes with his mood - so he deserves every tragedy that eventually befalls him.
Jeannette Catsoulis, reviewing the movie for The New York Times, praised Dream Scenario for “Pondering the downside of notoriety and our willingness to exchange safety for fame.” That’s such a glib, surface-level reading of the narrative that it makes me wonder if Catsoulis watched the film all the way to its conclusion. Borgli portrays Paul’s dweebishness as a Darwinian shortcoming: One of his lectures is about zebras using their stripes to blend in with the herd so as to avoid predators, but Paul notes that standing out from the herd is preferable when looking to mate, drawing a direct line between Paul’s social insignificance and his (very explicitly portrayed for laughs) sexual ineptitude. More than just a failure of eugenics, however, Borgli sees Paul’s shortcomings as a curse of fate: Dream Scenario first ridicules Paul for being feckless, mocking his decision to take his wife’s last name and hinting that Janet wants him to be an alpha male, and then ridicules him for trying to become more assertive and ultra-masculine. The message is neither “Learn to stand up for yourself” or “Learn to appreciate your blessings,” and it’s CERTAINLY not “notoriety has a downside.” The message is, “People like Paul can never be anything but a punchline, and fuck them for ever thinking otherwise.”
The film’s political intentions aren’t even subtext. When I saw the movie, the audience laughed when Paul bristles at the thought of engaging with right wing figures like Jordan Peterson and Tucker Carlson; they seemingly failed to notice that the movie dings Paul, again and again and again, for hoping he’ll show up in one of Barack Obama’s dreams. Paul isn’t just an irredeemable schmuck - he’s a liberal irredeemable schmuck. Dream Scenario makes no bones about which side its on.
None of this is even getting into the fact that Cage is perilously miscast. I love watching the actor chew the scenery as much as anyone, but Paul is supposed to a forgettable nobody, and playing a wallflower is not in the Cage’s arsenal. He plays Paul as perpetually twitchy and socially inept to an obnoxious degree - qualities that make him about as unmemorable as seeing a pig fly. American goddamn treasure Dylan Baker, a generic White guy if ever there was one, shows up for a few scenes as one of Paul’s acquaintances, and I couldn’t help but wonder what he might have done with the same role.
In its final act, Dream Scenario abruptly switches gears and become a sci-fi satirization of modern advertising and social media influencers, before refocusing on Paul just as suddenly. It’s almost like Borgli had an idea for an entirely different movie about dreams, and rather than either make that instead or save it for another day, he just kinda crammed it in here. It’s the only part of the narrative that made me think maybe Borgli isn’t coming down on the side of men’s rights activists - maybe he’s just an incompetent storyteller.