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A24 leaves viewers in their own ‘Dream Scenario’

A24%E2%80%99s+newest+film+%E2%80%9CDream+Scenario%2C%E2%80%9D+follows+Paul+Matthews+%28Nicolas+Cage%29%2C+a+washed-up+professor+as+he+becomes+the+object+of+everyones+dreams.
Courtesy of A24
A24’s newest film “Dream Scenario,” follows Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage), a washed-up professor as he becomes the object of everyone’s dreams.

2.0 out of 5.0 stars

A24’s newest film, Kristoffer Borgli’s high-concept comedy “Dream Scenario,” is a timid and toothless commentary on a world where everyone is connected, with a searing study on what global backlash does to a person hidden underneath. The film follows Paul Matthews (played by an unrecognizable Nicolas Cage), a washed-up professor at a less-than-prestigious university. 

On a night out with his wife, Janet (the lovely Julianne Nicholson), Paul is stopped by a former girlfriend, Claire (Marnie McPhail), of his from decades prior. She tells him that she’s been dreaming about him multiple nights in a row. It’s here that the true story begins. While on the surface, the film is about the horrors, complexities and harsh truths that come with a world guided by public opinion and mass thought, underneath it sports a heartbreaking tale about the folly of a man desperate for validation from his wife, from his kids and from the world. 

As numerous people dream about Paul, it seems to become less and less of a coincidence. The final nail in the coffin is hammered in when he receives a call from a former colleague saying that a friend of his had a dream with him in it. The very next day, upon his arrival to class, Paul finds the lecture hall full, contrasted to the sparse attendance prior to the dreams. Paul soon learns many people have been dreaming about him, but no matter the story, he remained a passive character. Despite dangerous, bizarre or horrifying circumstances, he would just stand there in the background. As a result, Paul soon becomes a local, then national, then global phenomenon. He feels invincible now — who doesn’t want to meet the man from their dreams?

Obsessed with the fame, Paul goes all in, doing interviews, taking pictures, happily listening to the dreamer’s stories and theories. He is truly on top of the world, ready to tackle his career aspirations of finally having published a book on his many — undocumented —  theories on his niche field of study. In a desperate attempt to stay on top of this, he meets with a talent agency to maximize his relevance in a fast-moving attention economy. But Paul’s career goals hardly line up with the aspirations this talent agency has for him. Being a normal man doesn’t usually include advertising Sprite in people’s dreams. 

Upon his return back home, away from the glitz and glam of Hollywood, he finds himself in a predicament. The worldwide dreams about Paul have turned into nightmares. No one will show up to class, no one even wants to be in the same room as the man they just witnessed torture them in their sleep. And what happens when a man on top of the world is suddenly forced into the role of a villain? 

This is precisely where the premise loses its bite. While Borgli has the best of intentions of creating a commentary on the popularity of “cancel culture” and the pitfalls of turning on people as a collective, it comes up flat and lacks the empathy that is required of any social comment. While Paul as a character is no saint, by positioning him as the main character, Borgli begs the question, “What if this happened to you?” “How would you feel in Paul’s position?” and ignoring the fantastical elements, it simply wouldn’t. 

Borgli’s allegorical “canceling” of Paul Matthews lacks compassion for the students too scarred from their nightmares to even go to class. Of course, the film argues on the validity of Paul’s overreaction and response to this turn, which is the question of his character. In the end, the audience members are not meant to empathize with the faceless and nameless students, colleagues and strangers who can’t even look Paul in the eyes after what he did to them, albeit in a dream. 

The most unfortunate part of it all is that Borgli has a strong control over the tone of the film, making for one of the most, intentionally, uncomfortable viewings in recent years. The editing style is consistently engaging, informative and beautifully motivated. Each cut feels natural but almost unexpected. It’s a technical marvel, frankly. But Borgli’s refusal to confront any of the actual reasons that people get “canceled” (which the validity and permanence of, in and of itself, is a whole mess the film can’t even get into), is what drives it down in effectiveness. While surely the mass backlash is a beast on its own, it’s not created out of nothing. There is no magical, unexplainable force that is conjured up by an unknown being making the public turn on these people. Again, Paul Matthews is no saint, but a film without a real cause-and-effect balance comes up to be just another “wouldn’t this be so crazy” scenario. And yes, it would be crazy. But it doesn’t say anything more about how crazy it would be or what happens to the person when all is said and done. Anyone who’s spent time on the internet from the years 2016–2018 knows the life cycle of someone whose name trended on Twitter next to the words “is over party” — they don’t need to be shown a feature film of it. Especially one that plays out without a second thought as to the key question in the existence of any work of art: “Why?”

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