Dreams are the place where impossibilities fall to the wayside. They are often containers of our biggest desires, replays of our greatest strugglers, and haunted houses of our greatest fears. Sometimes, they are just downright silly and unfathomable. Nevertheless, they are personal places of vulnerability – unless we decide to jot them down or speak about them. Imagine if somebody you never met could walk inside them (Not in a Freddy Krueger sense). They pass through like a stranger on the street. What would you do in that situation? Better yet, what would you do if you were endowed with the ability to phase through everybody’s sleep states? Daunting, isn’t it?
Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage) embodies a non-notable everyman to a tee. He is a university professor who loves to wear wooly sweaters and slacks. Paul is not particularly assertive regarding his dreams, and his constant need to matter constantly eats away at him. There’s a book idea Paul always floats, but he won’t take steps to write it. An old college friend named Sheila (Paula Boudreau) may have stolen a scientific idea of his to publish, but he’s too timid to put his foot down. But at least Paul’s family loves him, right? Well, his daughters (Lily Bird and Jessica Clement) tolerate his tedious nature, and his wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson) is supportive of him. Still, he’s too wrapped up in his insecurities to see that.
Otherwise, writer/director Kristoffer Borgli provides a template for an easygoing life that might be just enough for Paul to live within. Then, the phenomenon happens. Paul starts to appear in random people’s dreams as a manifestation of his lectures about Zebras within his class. He explains that Zebra stripes are a means of camouflage for the animals to protect themselves from predators. In all actuality, Paul has been doing this for most of his life – hanging back while things pass him by. The surrealist tone Borgli sets at the beginning of Dream Scenario involves Paul’s youngest daughter and things falling from the sky while she lifts weightless as he rakes leaves on the side of the pool.
Dream Scenario could be interpreted as a dark comedy, a Twilight Zone-like be careful what you wish for horror tale, and a social commentary all in one. It involves a man who can no longer lie to himself about his desires and whose dreams are a conduit of all he’s repressed. At first, everything is innocent. Paul gains some notoriety and even some interview inquiries about what’s happening. A marketing ensemble named “Thoughts?” catches wind of this and sees their new money-making machine. Trent (Michael Cera) and his business partner Mary (Kate Berlant) ask Paul to come to New York, and it boils down to a very funny, but exploitative pitch meeting involving a possible Sprite sponsorship, an Obama co-sign, and a new “dream influencer” term.
Paul asks like he couldn’t care less, electing to stick to the script of pushing the book on which he hasn’t even broken words yet. But his false sense of moral high ground starts to change as the dreams flip to a more indulgent and darker tone. Molly (Dylan Gelula), Trent’s assistant, informs Paul that she’s been having sex dreams with him involved, and they even go as far as to try to do a live replay of the scenario at hand. Yes, Paul is married (and states this many times), but it leads to a very emotionally intense scenario where Paul, let’s say, comes up short.
That shame and repression building up play out into nightmares for everybody else. Suddenly, the film shows a dangerous manifestation of Paul murdering various people in various ways. When cinematographer Benjamin Loeb wanted to show Paul as non-threatening and timid, quick cuts reveal him to be menacing and somewhat terrifying. Borgli’s meditation intends to pick and prod at themes of cancel culture, the men who yield it, and how memes and trends become cannibalization tools. It does feel absurd that ads can infiltrate our dreams, and that’s the point. With a specific ad placement, capitalism will always find a way to plant its flag on unclaimed territory – even if that means intruding on the places we consider private.
Paul assuredly loses everything, and Cage’s performance does the legwork to portray how stubborn and bullheaded the professor has come to be. This is even with how murky the context of how cancel culture seeks to find its end game within Dream Scenario. When things go wrong, everybody else is the problem, and all the others don’t have the tolerance level to withstand personal truths. The real pathetic nature is that Paul believes everybody else should suffer for the feelings of his inadequacies, which is where Dream Scenario succeeds once it lets its message play out.
Insecure men are unpredictable, and coupled with a need for somebody to recognize them might as well be a Molotov cocktail. While dreams might be a slight figment of our imaginations, perhaps the emotions that construct them exist as things we must heed. Dream Scenario is entirely zany, but has its feet firmly planted on the floor.