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Dream Scenario, starring Nicolas Cage and Michael Cera
Trailer: A24

Dream Scenario
Directed by Kristoffer Borgli
Rated R
Disrupted 24 November 2023

Like a dream disrupted before its resolution, Dream Scenario trips on its journey to cinematic greatness.

Do Something, Paul!

Dream Scenario movie poster

In the opening frames, a shoe drops.

Like the beginning of Jordan Peele’s Nope, it’s an eerie and unsettling start. A set of keys also falls from the sky, shattering a glass patio table. A young girl sitting at the table understandably freaks out. But Paul Matthews keeps on slowly raking up leaves, unfazed by the weirdness afoot. Even as the girl – his very own daughter – begins to float up to the heavens.

Turns out, it was all just in his daughter’s dreams. Or nightmares.

But it wasn’t a singular event.

People run into Paul, a science professor at an institution of higher learning called Osler University, and quickly realize the guy – balding, bearded, and oh so remarkably bland – has appeared in their dreams, too. An ex-girlfriend from decades ago. Students in his class. Friends of friends. A marketing creative. They see him as objects fall from the sky. As they’re attacked by a blood-drenched serial killer. As they escape an alligator uprising. As they seek shelter during an earthquake. As their home is invaded by a knife-wielding maniac.

In every single case, Paul Matthews enters the picture.

He watches.

And he does nothing.

It’s a fantastic premise. And Nicolas Cage is superb as Paul Matthews. He’s subdued. He lives and breathes the character without any of his trademark, over-the-top gusto, which was front-and-center in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. Paul is described as “perfectly average,” a “remarkable nobody.” And Cage makes him human.

But, much like the dreams he gets inserted into, Paul does nothing to save Dream Scenario – the movie – from itself.

Dream Epidemic

Dream Scenario starts strong, builds some momentum, then starts to creak. Then falter. Then, ultimately, the terrific build-up disintegrates into an unnecessary gimmick and a disappointing conclusion.

Here’s the problem.

Paul’s set up as a nobody who likes his quiet family life with his two daughters and wife of 15 years. He doesn’t want fame. But he’d like some recognition for his work. That includes coining the term “antilligent” in reference to his work studying the intelligence of ants and his contributions to the field of evolutionary biology.

A former colleague steals the term and he’s too wimpy to stand his ground.

He wants to write a book about ants. But he doesn’t do anything about it. The rest of the world passes him by, running with his ideas while he stands still.

He the kind of guy who talks about doing things, but there’s always something getting in the way. For most of us, that “something” is called life. As John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”

Why Paul shows up in people’s dreams is a puzzle, but he’s living in a world now dominated by social media, “influencers” and the concept of something going “viral” without infecting people with a disease. (Although, given all the mental health crises and social issues created by social media, there are plenty of negative side effects.) There’s also the rotting demon of cancel culture.

That would’ve been an interesting avenue to explore in a more subversive, off-the-wall fashion. Instead, Dream Scenario begins its descent into its own mediocrity with the introduction of a remarkably ugly, glowing wristband and something called the Norio dreamhouse.

Mandela Effect

As Paul’s notoriety rises, a branding agency called Thoughts? wants to capitalize on his global face recognition and he’s brought in for a pitch session. They want him in a Sprite campaign. Or maybe they can arrange something with Pres. Obama. But, hey! Even if they fail, they have a great story to tell. From failure comes the greatest success!

Here, writer-director Kristoffer Borgli (Sick of Myself) nails it. All the marketing and branding gobbledygook is delivered “pitch perfect” by Michael Sera (Scott Pilgram vs. the World) and Kate Berlant (Sorry to Bother You). It’s silly stuff, but it’s spot-on as it successfully skewers the manipulation of the cold calculations and insincerity behind modern marketing.

And the Thoughts? agency also serves as a narrative gateway to Dream Scenario’s best absurdist elements. Pair that with Paul’s class lectures on the purpose of zebra stripes and situations in which standing out is beneficial, and something truly innovative and thought-provoking begins to form.

It’s exciting to think about where it’s all headed.

Trauma Is Trending

Then the dreams go dark and violent. And there’s a bizarre crossover between dreams and the desire to act out them out in reality.

When the dreamhouse is introduced, it falls in line with Borgli’s social skewering. Vapid, dazed youth talk about the death of social media. Now, it’s all about people getting your permission to enter your dreams and sell you stuff while you sleep. The call it “mindvertising” but “dreamvertising” would be more fitting. Leave “mindvertising” for something even more invasive.

Yeah. It’s an interesting idea. But it needs a little more work. Especially in the context of interrupting and derailing what was a great storyline.

As the end credits roll by, there’s a really funny listing. It’s for one of the production companies. It’s called Paultergeist Pictures. That’s awesome. And it tracks perfectly with the movie’s first half. That’s the story. And maybe the better solution is to leave it alone, to not even try to explain it. Leave Dream Scenario in a dream state all its own.

But, as Paul’s world devolves and his marriage dissolves, the ending is a dud instead of uplifting. Without being a spoiler, keep this in mind: in the world of Dream Scenario, the “floater” is the dreamer. For the ending to land at least a little better, a couple roles should’ve been swapped.

Okay. Paul manages to write a book. But it’s not about antelligence. It’s about his dream invasion story. And that angle doesn’t play well, either.

As the movie ends, there’s hope a final twist will save Dream Scenario from its tailspin. Hopefully the other shoe from the beginning of the movie will finally drop.

It doesn’t.

• Review originally published at

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