An early draft of this review was originally published on November 27, 2023,
at Give Me Some Light on Substack, months before it appeared here.
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Diamond rings and all those things
They never sparkle like your smile
And as for fame, it’s just a name
That only satisfies you for a while…

You say you hunger
For something you can’t get at all
And love is not enough anymore…

If I was king for just one day
I would give it all away
I would give it all away
To be with you…

— Thompson Twins, “King for a Day”

For a movie about the world’s most uninteresting man, surrounded by a supporting cast of even less interesting characters — yes, I realize that’s a contradiction, and nevertheless it’s true — Dream Scenario sure plays around with a lot of interesting ideas!

Dream Scenario, the A24 Flavor of the Month from writer and director Kristoffer Borgli, is a wise and witty satire about America’s cultural obsession with “going viral,” the fleeting and fragile nature of fame, and the cost of being a household name if the public turns against you. For starters.

This ultimately underwhelming psychological thriller follows a frustrated academic, Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage). Paul suffers from a sort of mediocrity that makes him a not-so-innocent bystander on the stage of life. He’s a ho-hum husband, an extremely uncool dad, a sort of “blank” in a world of exclamation points. His lack of agency doesn’t just make him uninteresting; it makes him annoying. He’d be lost if it weren’t for his longsuffering spouse Janet (Julianne Nicholson), who seems to still love him for who he is. Otherwise, Paul shuffles through every day yearning to be admired by his daughters, longing to be respected by his colleagues, and dreaming of being recognized for his studies on the psychology of ants. And he gets… wait for it… antsy when another academic infringes on what he considers his intellectual territory.

Professor Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage) discovers that he’s gone viral — literally — by inexplicably appearing in everyone’s dreams. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

But it’s hard to be celebrated for one’s publications if one can’t find the will to sit down and start writing. And, like another character Nicolas Cage played in Charlie Kaufman’s provocative Adaptation, this avatar of Kaufman-esque insecurity and awkwardness just can’t bring himself to compose the pages that might finally put him on the Map of the World’s Somebodies.

In my creative writing classes, we always get around to talking about “the Story Spine,” an elementary formula that can be identified in anything we recognize as a story. There’s the situation: the “Once Upon a Time…” line. There’s the normalcy: the “Every day…” line. And then comes that most important moment, the thing we call the Inciting Incident. It’s the line that says, “But one day….

The Inciting Incident of Dream Scenario, the big idea that sets the primary drama in motion, is this: Inexplicably, Paul starts appearing in everyone’s dreams. Everyone’s. His face is the face of an enigmatic dream epidemic. And he’s catapulted to global fame almost overnight. Fame for doing… nothing. He’s just suddenly everywhere.

It’s a great twist, a brilliant premise for the age of memes and TikTok influencers. Paul is recognized by everyone, his world is turned upside down, and he’s appearing on talk shows. Why? For doing next to nothing. For appearing to do something. His bored and despairing students suddenly find him interesting.

In his first meeting with a marketing agency, Paul learns what it’s like to be a form of cultural currency. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

What comes next in the Story Spine? A sequence of steps that we call “And because of that….” Each of these steps represents a chain reaction set in motion by the Inciting Incident, a series of ripple effects and consequences leading to the inevitable step that we call “Until finally…” when everything reaches a point of resolution or collapse.

One of the most significant “And because of that….” steps in Dream Scenario is this: Slowly accepting and them embracing his fame, Paul starts looking for a way to exploit the moment: He scrambles to secure a cart (that is, a book deal) that he can place before the horse (that is, any actual writing). Maybe Paul’s moment has finally come.

And who can blame him? Let’s face it: We all want to be seen as special. We crave the flattery of positive attention. Here’s his chance, in the spotlight on the world stage, to reveal what he really has to offer.

But we also know that for every cultural idol who has earned our respect and admiration, there are a hundred more who have become household names for reasons that are questionable at best. Has Paul prepared properly for the moment? Does he have something to offer?

Marketing agent Trent (Michael Cera) pitches Paul a partnership with Sprite. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

And there’s another dangerous question on the table: It’s no secret that a lifetime of good work can be flushed down the cancel-culture toilet if the X-Ray of media attention discovers (or fabricates) a celebrity’s character flaw. As Suzanne Vega sings, “When heroes go down / They land in flame / So don’t expect any slow and careful / Settling of blame.” Is Paul a person built to survive the searing scrutiny of global fame?

Michael Cera — perfectly cast in view of the fact that he’s often chosen to play human “blanks” — plays an opportunistic marketing agent named Trent. (Because it’s spelled kinda like… “Trend,” I guess?) Trent is the first marketplace predator to pounce on Paul’s unlikely “influencer” potential, hoping to sign him to advertising deals with a cola company. Of the film’s many “moves” to score points of social commentary, this may be the sharpest, making us think about how many celebrity spokespersons we listen to per day, and wonder why we find any merit at all in their endorsements of anything. (I write this as another pizza commercial with Shaquille O’Neal is playing on my TV.)

Paul doesn’t want to become a spokesperson for anything. He wants to be known for who he actually is and what he actually cares about. But nobody is really interested in either of those things. Love may be attention — thank you, Lady Bird — but not all forms of attention are love. It takes Paul a while to realize that people are only interested in him for a couple of reasons: For some, he occupies the spotlight they crave for themselves. For others, his fame represents a kind of currency, and they want to find a way to cash in. I’m reminded of the wisdom of that clear-eyed seashell in Marcel the Shell With Shoes On: There’s a difference between an audience and a community. Paul has stumbled into one, when he needs to do the work necessary to play a meaningful part of the other.

Wow — on paper, this sounds like such a great movie. Kristoffer Borgli has so much of what he needs here to deliver a great film.

Overnight, Paul goes from being a professor who students merely endure to the most popular presence on campus. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

First, he has such a promising premise. He sends Paul along a narrative trajectory rich with opportunities to mirror back to us our own complicity in the absurdities of pop-culture exploitation. Paul enjoys the kind of fame that most TikTokkers’ dream about. But then, he ends up suffering the worst kind of consequences that most fame-seekers ignorantly risk… and many, unfortunately, find. Media spotlights can glorify those who seek them and those who accidentally stumble into the glow. But they can also burn the same “lucky winners” — great artists and soulless opportunists alike — into ash in a moment, whether they have made a mistake that deserves such judgment or not.

At its best, Dream Scenario drives us to ask important questions:

  • Do we really want to be famous? What do we want to be famous for? And what purpose do we hope that fame will serve?
  • When we look around, do we see fame bringing true health and human flourishing to the people we admire? What does living in the spotlight cost a person? Are we ready for that?
  • Wouldn’t it be better just to do good work consistently and quietly? Do we really want to run the risk of bankrupting our whole life’s work and the security of our loved ones, inviting a plague of dehumanizing surveillance?

Secondly, Borgli has one of Hollywood’s most recognizable marquee names in the lead role. Nicolas Cage may be the perfect star for this part, given that his career has been a rollercoaster of the highs and lows of fame. He’s had top-billing in prestige pictures. He’s won an Oscar. He’s had romances and breakups that have been tabloid cover stories. His media history is one of achievement and embarrassment. But we can’t escape the question that comes with any new Cage movie: Which Cage are we going to get? The one who just shows up and cashes in? Or the one who does the work?

Paul on the rampage: The professor lashes out “negative press.” [Image from the A24 trailer.]

Good news: Dream Scenario stars the Great Nicolas Cage. For more about 90 of the film’s 105 minutes, Borgli serves up a sequence of intriguing scenarios, but they only work because of Cage’s creativity. Given the challenge of playing someone who isn’t interesting, Cage does something interesting with every single scene. Since the comic performances that made him famous in the late ‘80s, his flair for hilarity has only returned on rare occasions like Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men, Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, and Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant Port of Call New Orleans. But he’s as surprisingly funny in Dream Scenario as he was surprisingly dramatic and endearing in 2021’s Pig. Let’s get him yet another Oscar nomination, Academy!

Julianne Nicholson, playing Paul’s longsuffering wife, is lovely. (I’ve been a fan of hers since Tully way back in 2000, and I’m still reeling from her fierce performance in Mare of Easttown.)

But that’s where the good news stops. The supporting cast, given half-cooked characters with nothing interesting to offer, aren’t given much of an opportunity to make memorable impressions. And it’s not for lack of talent: The film squanders the presence of Tim Meadows (who isn’t allowed to be funny?), Dylan Baker (who isn’t given a single interesting moment to play?), and Shithouse’s Dylan Gelula (whose character, in a more talented screenwriter’s hands, might have stolen the show?) I’m most frustrated to find Amber Midthunder, so kinetic and compelling in 2022’s excellent Predator prequel called Prey, given nothing to do at all except make half the audience say “Wait—why do I recognize her?”

Inevitably, Paul encounters a dreamer (Dylan Gelula) who’s having some of those dreams about him. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

Perhaps the most surprisingly disappointing aspect of the film, given that it’s from the studio that gave us The Green Knight and Everything Everywhere All at Once, is that Borgli doesn’t conjure a single compelling image. I wouldn’t call Dream Scenario “a bad dream,” but it sure is a bland dream. If anyone finds images from this movie memorable, it’s because a situation is interesting, not the way that it’s captured. We get a shot of crocodiles cornering a young woman; another of a girl suddenly levitating; a few of Paul viciously attacking people; another of young man being stalked by a blood-red devil. And yet, while the prospect of creating these images must have seemed exciting, none of them — not even the one in which David Byrne’s giant suit from Stop Making Sense makes an appearance — are particularly striking or suggestive. Very few filmmakers know how to achieve a truly dream-like “surreality” — and I don’t think Borgli has David Lynch’s number in his iPhone contacts.

Thus, moviegoers are likely to come away from Dream Scenario talking about Cage or offering their various takes on the film’s obvious zeitgeist commentaries. But it’s the pictures in motion pictures that make the most lasting impressions. And on that count, what Dream Scenario could have been is something we can only dream about.

And yet…

As underwhelmed as I am by the last fifteen minutes of Dream Scenario, I’ve been thinking about it a lot. So much of what it reflects back to us about our own fame-obsessed culture is worth taking to heart.

Have you ever had a dream like this one? Was Paul Matthews in it? [Image from the A24 trailer.]

In my twice-annual sessions of Imaginative Writing, my intro-to-creative-writing class at Seattle Pacific University, I occasionally encounter a student who has decided they want to “be a writer.” They tell me about their favorite books or screenplays — usually popular franchise stories with adjacent movies and games. They tell me they tried to register for my Advanced Fiction Writing class, but discovered that the Intro course was a pre-requisite, and so they’re jumping through this inconvenient hoop. What they’re really interested in, they say, is getting published.

Experience has taught me to smile, be respectful, and quietly insist that the introductory course is not just a hoop to jump through. My writing classes are about learning and practicing the disciplines that lead to strong writing: craft exercises, freewriting, ambitious reading, small group workshopping, and revision, for starters. These will help them discover that writing can be a richly rewarding way of life — an abundant and meaningful life! — whether or not it leads to publication. (I love Annie Dillard’s anecdote in The Writing Life about a writer who was approached by a student and asked, “Do you think I could be a writer?” “‘Well,’ the writer said, ‘do you like sentences?’”)

Publishing? That’s a whole different subject. I remind my students that a whole lot of terrible writing gets published, and a whole lot of great writing is rejected by 70 publishers or more before it finds a home… if it ever finds a home. I tell them about the five year span in which I wrote five books under contract, and how they were some of the most stressful and punishing years of my life, nearly burning me out as a writer. They blink, and it’s clear to me that I must sound like one of the adults in a Peanuts cartoon. They’re not really hearing me. Their mind is already made up: They’re in love with the idea of being known as a writer, and not at all ready for the rigors of writing. Most of them have no idea what that involves. (Hint: Malcolm Gladwell wasn’t far off when he wrote about “the 10,000 hours.”)

During Paul Matthews’ bizarre rise and fall, he’s still not writing, still not doing the work that would actually contribute. [Image from the A24 trailer.]

Within a few weeks’ time, these students who have decided to be writers tire of actual writing. And it turns out that the stories they felt so compelled to tell were just a grab-bag of familiar twist-ending formulas: “My narrator was dead the whole time! Surprise!” “The protagonist dies of a car accident at the last moment — nobody saw that coming!” “The food they were eating… it was people!” “Surprise! The whole thing was just a dream!”

Perhaps I sound cynical. I’m not. I find impressive writers in these classrooms too, and sometimes one of those ambitious, career-minded dreamers actually turns out to have real talent. I just graded a stack of revisions in creative nonfiction, poetry, and fiction, and I recognize those who are likely to write for the rest of their lives: They are enjoying the work of revision. I’m always willing to be surprised.

What troubles me are not the ambitious, career-minded students. What troubles me are the forces that so often shape their expectations and their preoccupations with a fast-track to fame. They don’t understand just how dangerous our desire to be recognized, celebrated, and validated can be. Attention, like any exciting drug, can become an end in itself and distract us from meaningful work. It can cost us our privacy. It can cost us our friendships and families. It can test our integrity. Typically, these dreamers don’t realize what it takes to win a cultural spotlight, much less to sustain that kind of attention once you have it. They don’t know what can happen when the heat of pop-culture glory hits you and reveals just how much — or, more likely, how little — you’re ready to offer. And they forget that the simple fact of being a fallible human paints a target on your chest, so that simple stumbles that used to be incidental have become an invitation for public condemnation and scorn.

We’re surrounded every day by famous figures like Dream Scenario’s protagonist who have become popular for frivolous reasons. But even those who have earned their way to fame by their meaningful contributions to society are vulnerable when they stand before a fickle and mercurial public. In an ideal world, audiences would focus on the work, not the maker. “There is no such thing as an artist,” writes Annie Dillard in Holy the Firm. “There is only the world, lit or unlit as the light allows. When the candle is burning, who looks at the wick? When the candle is out, who needs it?” What a world it would be if we heeded those words and gave up this circus of celebrity nonsense. But that’s not the world we live in.

During the few years in the late 2000s when all of my publishing dreams were coming true, and I was thrilling at the sight of my own books at the front of Barnes & Noble bookstores, something happened to me. My relationship with writing changed. I became much more focused on engaging audiences, much less focused on the writing itself. And I nearly collapsed chasing every opportunity to promote the books, marketing and marketing, doing interview after interview, scrambling to try to sustain the momentum of potential. I wrote more hastily, more desperately, as the demands of the Machine took more and more of my energy and attention.

In Dream Scenario, Paul hasn’t even begun to do the academic writing that he wants the world to know him for. But it’s not just his writing — or, rather, his dream of writing — that suffers. He’s also failing to live up to his potential as a father, as a husband, as a member of a community. The hype of his success is filling up his life with even more nothingness. Perhaps if he were a human being first and a celebrity second, he might have some actual wisdom and work to offer when this almost-arbitrary spotlight of celebrity finds him.

That may not be the wisdom that Dream Scenario intends to impress upon us. (To be honest, given the film’s rather haphazard conclusion, I’m not exactly sure what the film ends up hoping we understand.) But it’s the wisdom that has me replaying the film in my mind.

Merriam-Webster has chosen the word authentic as the 2023 Word of the Year. And it’s a word that seems to me to be at the heart of Dream Scenario’s questions. Yes, Paul Matthews has gone viral. But does he have what it takes to do something worthwhile with that attention? Does he have what it takes to stand strong if and when the audience turns against him?

If that merciless spotlight ever swings back around to me again, I hope I’m wiser. I hope I’m prepared to make something more meaningful of the moment. And if it doesn’t? That’s just fine with me. It’s probably for the best.