Nicolas Cage, after more than 100 credits, finally has his dream role, at least as comedy fans are concerned. He knocks it out of the park as a schlubby, balding college professor who suddenly starts appearing in people’s dreams, first his daughter’s, then an old girlfriend’s, and soon millions of people around the globe are seeing this ordinary looking, very plain guy walking through their slumber in rather non-descript ways no matter what the situation. He becomes a phenomenon, until it reverses and the whole thing turns into a literal nightmare.
This is the inspired comic premise of Dream Scenario, perhaps the most ingenious screen idea Woody Allen never had, although it might have been interesting if he did (think a twisted Zelig). Instead it comes from the mind of Norwegian filmmaker Kristoffer Borgli, whose main claim to fame before this film, which had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival this weekend, was 2022 Cannes Un Certain Regard entry Sick of Myself. But Dream Scenario marks his English-language debut, and on the basis of this character-driven deadpan, flat-out hilarious film he could be the answer to the question: Who is the world’s next great comedy filmmaking talent? In addition to writing and directing the movie, he also serves as his own film editor which could be a reason the comedic rhythms of this movie are pitch-perfect brilliant.
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Cage, a riot as this affable unremarkable everyman who suddenly gets his 15 minutes of fame, is clearly right in sync with what his director had in mind, even adjusting his voice for maximum effect as well as his well-known looks. Frequently, Borgli just pops the same smiling photo of Cage’s character Paul Matthews on screen and gets a big laugh every single time.
What is remarkable is how Borgli is able to stretch out what is essentially a one-joke premise into a 101-minute film without letting the soufflé go flat — no easy task. Paul Matthews is like a million ordinary guys wandering the planet — you wouldn’t give him a second look — except somehow he starts showing up in other people’s dreams. There is a very funny encounter early on at the theater where Paul and his wife Janet, who hasn’t had a dream in which he appears (one of the best jokes), run into an old girlfriend who informs him of the dream she has just had about him after last seeing him decades ago and never thinking about him. He is non-plussed, Janet a little put off, but it soon escalates, first with his students and then everywhere. He becomes a genuine celebrity, but all Paul really wants is a publishing deal for his book idea about ants (which others misunderstand as about plants). A major company even comes calling called “Thoughts,” run by baseball cap-wearing CEO Trent (Michael Cera) and his associate Mary (Kate Berlant) who summon him to try to sell him on their “ideas” for him, noting that Sprite is already on board for an idea to do an ad where Paul enters dreams holding their product. Even a movie deal is possible they say, but Paul just wants help with his dream book proposal. One comic highlight is with a young woman (Dylan Gelula) having sexual dreams about Paul which turns into a “date” as she tries to make the dream come true. You can guess where that goes, but its gets the kind of laugh in a full theater comedy writers dream about themselves.
Things start to go wrong though, and Paul’s fortunes change when the dreams in which he appears become Freddy Krueger-style horror movies and everyone now is scared to death of this guy who is giving them nightmares. Even his class won’t show up.
Cage is the glue; his seemingly effortless timing and priceless reactions carry this premise all the way through, and he keeps you laughing continuously. The actor has been having a renaissance lately with acclaimed work in offbeat films like Pig and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. He has already said he thinks this is his best film, and that is saying a lot. The jokes land almost every time in a smart, observant manner that makes this comedy sing. The supporting cast, particularly Cera, play it perfectly as well.
Comedy has been an endangered species in Hollywood of late, but if Dream Scenario is any indication, it could come back with a vengeance if the right talents got their shot. Borgli is certainly one of them.
Producers are Lars Knudsen, Ari Aster, Tyler Campellone, Jacob Jaffke and Cage.
Title: Dream Scenario
Distributor: A24 Films
Release Date: November 10, 2023
Festival: Toronto Film Festival (Platform)
Director-screenwriter: Kristoffer Borgli
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Julianne Nicholson, Lily Bird, Jessica Clement, Tim Meadows, Michael Cera, Kate Berlant, Dylan Gelula, Cara Volchoff, Noah Centineo, Nicholas Braun, Dylan Baker
Running time: 1 hr 41 min
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