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“Dream Scenario” Needs Less Nightmare

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 24th, 2023

Film review: “Dream Scenario”

Dream Scenario (Kristoffer Borgli, 2023) 2½ out of 4 stars.

There’s nothing wrong with Dream Scenario that a little Charlie Kaufman couldn’t fix. Writer/director Kristoffer Borgli (Sick of Myself) has a fascinating premise and an initially strong development of it, but can’t write himself out of a desperate third act. And given that star Nicolas Cage appears to be channeling his 2002 performance as Kaufman in the movie Adaptation. (written by Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze), it’s hard not to pine for the real thing.

After all, the man who gave us such metaphysically driven scripts as Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche, New York, and I’m Thinking of Ending Things, among others, would surely know what to do with this movie’s central idea. Ersatz Kaufman is better than no Kaufman at all, however. And Cage fully commits to the part, elevating what doesn’t quite work through sheer force of will.

Nicolas Cage in DREAM SCENARIO ©A24

He plays Professor of Biology Paul Matthews, a bit of an academic sad sack whose college students don’t seem to think too much of him. The same could be said for his two teen daughters, and maybe even of his wife, Janet (Julianne Nicholson, Monos). Until, that is, he inexplicably begins to appear in dreams. Whose dreams? Everyone’s, or at least those of many people, strangers and acquaintances alike. But not Janet’s.

At first taken aback, he soon decides to embrace his status as nighttime virtual extra, bothered though he may be by the fact that all he appears to do in the dreams is walk by, or silently watch, as sometimes horrible (or at least odd) things happen to the dreamer. Paul quickly goes viral, drawing both wanted and unwanted attention, as do all celebrities.

l-r: Nicolas Cage, Richard Jutras, and Michael Cera in DREAM SCENARIO ©A24

Sadly, the good times will only roll for so long, though as they do, the situations lead to many a laugh. It’s when Matthews becomes more of an active—and violent—participant in the dreams that the “scenario” turns sour. Even though he is, in fact, blameless, what seemed like a momentary blessing—the attention might finally lead to his longed-for book being published!—becomes a curse. It looks like his students and the public could cancel him. To say nothing of Janet’s further disappointment.

Given the comic genius of the early moments, it’s a bitter cinematic pill to swallow that Borgli so quickly loses his way by midpoint. Worse, it’s never clear what he’s trying to say about Matthews. Yes, he’s an underachiever, but what else, and why? For a while it seems like this could be a meditation on longing and thwarted ambition, but the twist towards nightmare and subsequent consequences leads nowhere meaningful, including an unfortunate sidebar about tech-driven “dreamfluencers.”

l-r: Nicolas Cage and Julianne Nicholson in DREAM SCENARIO ©A24

Still, there is a final scene of pure loveliness between Paul and Janet that almost makes up for earlier dramatic missteps, one which left this reviewer quite misty-eyed, even though their marital relationship remains one of the great undeveloped plot points of the story. Going back to Adaptation., in that film, screenwriting guru Robert McKee (played by the great Brian Cox), urges Kaufman to “wow them in the end” and all will be forgiven. That’s good advice, and it almost works here. Close enough, anyhow, to make the conclusion almost feel like a daydream worth having.

[Dream Scenario premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. I am reviewing it out of the 2023 Middleburg Film Festival.]


Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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