There are so many different factors at play when it comes to how viral sensations go viral that it can be hard to pinpoint what, exactly, made the people behind them interesting in the first place. But in Dream Scenario, A24’s new dark comedy from writer / director Kristoffer Borgli, there is zero question why everyone’s so obsessed with the most famous person on the planet, and that clarity highlights some deeply unsettling truths about our current age of parasocial relationships.
Set in an ordinary world where teachers have to beg students to pay attention and fleets of PR professionals work hard to keep people thinking about nothing but brand names, Dream Scenario tells the story of Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage), an evolutionary biology professor who — like many unremarkable middle-aged men — feels like he’s been dealt a bad hand in life. Paul’s wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson) and their young daughters Sophie (Lily Bird) and Hannah (Jessica Clement) all love him and take to his study of ant behaviors with varying degrees of interest.
Though they’re not as hyped as Paul himself, his family is still proud of him for writing a book based on his research. But when Paul’s book debuts to zero fanfare, he can’t help but wonder whether he’s wasting his life away — a fear reinforced by the way many people in Paul’s orbit, like colleagues Brett (Tim Meadows) and Richard (Dylan Baker), treat him as a forgettable NPC rather than a person with his own thoughts and feelings.
No matter how hard Paul tries, he can’t get his peers to see him as anything more than a background player in their ongoing stories. But when people across the entire world who have never met, seen, or even heard of Paul inexplicably start to have shockingly vivid dreams featuring him, he becomes a global phenomenon and the kind of celebrity that the public thinks it wants to know everything about.
Dream Scenario opens and frequently postures itself as an absurdist comedy that’s intentionally capitalizing on Cage’s real-world status as an eccentric cinematic folk hero. Paul’s a bit of an oddball prone to awkward fits of inappropriate laughter in everyone’s waking lives, but he’s not all that much to write home about at first. Even once he starts appearing in strangers’ dreams, Paul rarely does anything remarkable other than be there, disengaged and unaware of how curious the things happening around him are.
As dream Paul’s nocturnal cameos become increasingly widespread, though, more and more people begin to feel as if they’ve seen him somewhere in something, because they have. And that’s more than enough for brands to come banging on Paul’s door offering him a taste of the recognition he desperately yearns for.
Dream Scenario shape-shifts wildly with each of its fantastical dream sequences in which Paul looks on while people deal with all sorts of mental baggage. Some people’s recurring dreams seem like flashes from natural disaster films, while others feel more science-fictional or akin to erotic thrillers. The only common thread between them all is dream Paul, who’s always there watching but seldom doing anything of note — a detail that bothers real Paul deeply. But as many questions as the mass dream phenomenon should raise, very few people are interested in asking them because they’re too busy being caught up in the excitement of the larger moment.
In Paul — a simple, well-meaning man who takes to fame with anything but grace — you can see flashes of the full-tilt hamminess Cage is capable of. And that telegraphs the film’s dark, fascinating turn that comes as people’s dreams featuring the professor start to become violent nightmares.
The film’s most interesting articulations of the dangers posed by viral fame don’t come as fiery speeches from an embittered Paul or as concerns expressed by his loved ones. Instead, Dream Scenario highlights the idea by depicting a society so preoccupied with parasocial relationships that no one stops to think about what anyone’s really getting out of them.
Even as it’s amping up its absurdity factor, Dream Scenario’s wild twists always feel like fairly reasonable guesses about how the world might respond if a rando started haunting our collective unconscious. It’s as unsettling as it is disturbing — doubly so because it’s still a comedy at its core — and that heady mix will likely leave you wanting to do nothing but talk about the film after you’ve seen it.
Dream Scenario also stars Michael Cera, Dylan Gelula, David Klein, Cara Volchoff, Noah Centineo, and Amber Midthunder. The film is in theaters now.