Dream Scenario is a Surreal Drama with a Touch of Absurdist Misery

Film distributor A24’s brand identity has crystallised into surreal, stylish dramas with a touch of misery. Their latest release, Dream Scenario, is exactly that. So in that sense, the film is almost formulaic. It’s an odd thing to say about such an odd movie, but if you’ve seen some of A24’s similarly iconoclastic films – like Beau is Afraid and The Lighthouse – you’ll find it hard to disagree. It’s not that it’s lacking in imagination, but that there is a certain rigidity and commerciality in its atmosphere.

Paul Matthews (Nicholas Cage) is bland, ineffectual, and completely unmemorable. He has a wife (Julianne Nicholson), two daughters, one friend (his boss), and works as an evolutionary biologist. His daughter has been having dreams of him standing around, doing nothing while she’s in trouble, and she’s not the only one. People all around have been having him show up in their dreams, and soon he becomes a local celebrity. But when his dream doppelganger starts doing more than just standing around, his popularity turns to notoriety and his quiet suburban life spirals out of control.

There’s an internet phrase – “milkshake duck” – which describes something that at first appears wholesome, only it turns out to be unwholesome – that cute duck that drinks milkshakes? It’s racist. By sheer chance, Paul Matthews is scooped from mediocrity, raised into superstardom, then flung down into the depths of notoriety. He gets milkshake ducked. It’s comedy to tragedy. It’s biblical. But is that what you want from a kooky Nic Cage movie? Who can say? At least Cage makes a meal of it.

Nic Cage has always had superb range – from the quiet and thoughtful (Adaptation) to the outright absurd (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans) – and Dream Scenario harnesses this marvelously. Cage transforms to the point that you can easily forget that both Paul and his dream doppelganger are played by the same actor. One second he’s moping about, practicing his social cues and being painfully awkward, the next he’s aggressively seducing, emotionlessly hunting, or gleefully terrorizing people. It’s an impressive set of performances from an impressive actor supported by strong work from Julianne Nicholson (Blonde), Michael Cera (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), and Dylan Gelula (First Girl I Loved). 

And it’s funny too. Raucously funny even. So when the comedy turns to tragedy, you’re left with an awkward smile on your face. You watch Paul get harassed for eating in public, or bawl his eyes out for a YouTube apology video and wait for the next joke. When it comes, you have a good laugh, then Paul’s life takes another dive. It’s an imperfect mixture, and it leaves some of the more serious emotional scenes high and dry.

But the attraction of this type of film – the gonzo, one-of-a-kind adventure – isn’t emotional catharsis or anything so high-falutin, its the strange sights, the oddities and rarities. On that front, Dream Scenario works well – Paul quietly walking through a earth shaking disaster, or saving his wife from a witch’s pyre in David Byrne’s oversized suit are unforgettable images. It’s just too bad that the chaos and excitement of dreams on scene are confined by the surprisingly rote story of a man’s rise and fall.

Director: Kristoffer Borgli

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Lily Bird, Julianne Nicholson

Writer: Kristoffer Borgli

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Branden Zavaleta

Branden Zavaleta is a Perth-based film critic. He loves movies that charm, surprise or share secrets. Some little known favourites of his are Ishii's The Taste of Tea, Barboni's They Call Me Trinity, and Kieslowski's Camera Buff.

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