Not to cast about for trends, but what do the movies of 2023 have against balding, flatulent, socially awkward teachers named Paul? Exhibit A, recently seen in “The Holdovers,” is Paul Hunham, an ill-tempered, foul-smelling history instructor who is loathed by his students, has no friends or family to speak of and spends the movie schlubbing his way toward some misty-eyed yuletide redemption. He’s played by another Paul (Giamatti), an actor who specializes in down-on-their-luck types who, as Hunham himself puts it, do not have “a face for romance.”
Equally unromantic of face is Paul Matthews, a biology professor played by a dowded-down Nicolas Cage in the patchily entertaining dark comedy “Dream Scenario.” Nebbishy to the ninth, Paul trudges through the movie leading with his shiny white pate and enormous glasses, often wearing a parka whose gray fur lining might be an extension of his beard. His voice is high and nasal; he laughs just a little too hard at his own jokes. He exasperates his loving wife, Janet (a fine Julianne Nicholson), and mortifies his teenage daughters (Lily Bird and Jessica Clement). His long, tenured academic career is nonetheless rife with disappointment, to judge by an awkward reunion with a former colleague whom Paul accuses of plagiarizing his (never-published) ideas.
Those ideas focus on what he proudly calls “antelligence,” the natural and evolutionarily beneficial tendency of organisms to arrange themselves into communities. That provides something of a metaphor for Paul himself, who isn’t one to stand out; it also lays some thematic groundwork for a movie that is very much about the so-called wisdom of crowds. Through some mysterious and wisely unexplained phenomenon, Paul begins appearing in other people’s dreams. Friends, family members, students and total strangers all attest to having nightmares about him, or rather nightmares in which he happens to show up as an onlooker. As the dreamer is chased, attacked, injured or dragged away, Paul is always just there, either passing through or watching unhelpfully from the sidelines. He’s a one-man demonstrator of the bystander effect in action.
It’s a grabber of a premise, a kind of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” as reimagined by Charlie Kaufman. And for a while, the Norwegian writer-director Kristoffer Borgli mines from it a rich vein of metaphysical implication and what-the-hell weirdness. (And also some amiable humor: Tim Meadows plays the dean at Paul’s university.) The dreams themselves are creepily and memorably staged, with unsettling zooms, ominous noises and odd dashes of prosthetic gore. And Borgli, who serves as his own editor, weaves them into the narrative with a deftness that confounds our sense of what is and isn’t really happening.
Paul’s passive behavior in dreams is a dig at his own ineffectuality in life; the mere idea of someone so unmemorable becoming a celebrity of the subconscious is a cruelly ironic jab. At the same time, Borgli cleverly flips that joke on its head. He has, after all, cast Cage, an actor who couldn’t disappear into a role if he tried, and who has grown only more self-regarding with time. That’s been delightfully apparent in recent movies like “Mandy,” “Pig” and “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” a meta-meditation on the agony and ecstasy of being Nicolas Cage. “Dream Scenario” certainly joins their company, even if it ultimately falls short of it.
Paul Matthews is a fiercely memorable loser, a sad sack who bristles with recognizably Cageian energy. But he is also the fulcrum for a satire that takes energetic if scattershot aim at a broad array of cultural targets. Paul’s dream-crashing tendencies turn him into a viral sensation (an outcome that arguably calls for more suspension of disbelief than his popping up in everyone’s dreams to begin with, but never mind). He’s courted by a talent agency that, as led by a pitch-perfect Michael Cera, holds up a wry mirror to 21st century influencer culture. Paul, who just wants to find a publisher for his book, is suddenly confronted with imbecilic pitches, vacuous corporate sponsorships, brazen flattery and one surprising instance of sexual attention.
It’s amusing, up to a point. In dreamlogical terms, Paul eventually switches from passive to aggressive, from silent interloper to pure nightmare fuel. And as he becomes Public Enemy No. 1, or what zoomers would term the “main character,” “Dream Scenario” morphs, to its detriment, into a bland if increasingly bloody satire of cancel culture. It’s not just that some of Borgli’s material already feels dated. (One Tucker Carlson joke would have played better before April.) It’s that, in turning Paul into a poster child for the socially ostracized — an unfortunate victim of the crowd mentalities he’s spent his career studying — the movie itself seems to shrink just at the point when it should be expanding. It feels conceptually and imaginatively reduced.
The natural kinship between dreams and movies, well documented since the advent of cinema, can hardly be overstated. The best parts of “Dream Scenario” are those dreams, the sequences in which Borgli pushes the medium and himself into unsettling, hallucinatory territory. Here it may be worth noting that the movie’s producers include the director Ari Aster, himself an aficionado of waking-dream horror (“Hereditary,” “Midsommar”) and sad-sack portraiture (“Beau Is Afraid”). He’s a fine choice of inspiration, even if this particular offshoot never quite breaks free of its Cage.