Sunday 12 November 2023

Overnight sensations: "Dream Scenario"

Twenty years have passed since Nicolas Cage last went full schlub with his double role in
Adaptation., his last great role before a spell in the DTV-adjacent acting wilderness. Dream Scenario again invites the star to accentuate the bald spot, swap leathers for woollens and rein in the high kicks in the service of a more than serviceable conceit, one you'll no doubt be fully aware of at this point: yes, this is the one about the nothingy college professor who achieves fame and notoriety overnight after he starts turning up in other people's dreams. The overarching gag here hinges on that nothingness: even in dreams, Cage's Paul Matthews is a mere bystander or passer-by, and more often than not the butt of some nocturnal joke. It's not really enough to sustain a midlife career pivot, much less make up for the snubs and humiliations of waking life, and so its net effect is to leave the real Matthews more frustrated still. It's not good for a man who is, according to an old flame, forever "searching for the insult" to have acquaintances ring him up to tell him he was the #1 topic of discussion at a dinner party to which, yet again, he wasn't invited: everyone's talking about Paul Matthews, but they're doing so behind his back. As countless commentators have already noted, this makes the activity of Dream Scenario a neat analogue for the vagaries and vicissitudes of viral fame: writer-director Kristoffer Borgli is exploring what it is to be at the centre of the cultural conversation for no good reason, and with no control over where it goes and the effect it has on you and your loved ones. From dreams, the movie means to conjure a very modern nightmare.

The Norwegian Borgli, who broke through with last year's gurgling satire Sick of Myself, is another of those anthropologically-inclined Scandie directors, doubtless pushed into executive heads by the breakout success of Ruben Östlund. He's certainly more economical than Östlund has been of late, which should work in his favour: Dream Scenario runs a brisk one hour 45, and features far more in the way of character and story development than the ungainly Triangle of Sadness. Paul hopes to leverage his newfound prominence to snag the academic publisher he feels he deserves; instead, he finds himself in the boardroom of a branding agency (a nice, Nathan Barley-ish touch: they're called Thoughts?), being pitched on the prospect of doing Sprite ads. That's one of several peculiar little truths this story kicks out: fame is largely a matter of taking meetings with people who've misunderstood where you're coming from. How, then, has Borgli used his own emergent status within the industry? Chiefly, it appears, to fashion the kind of curio he would have grown up watching the American independent sector turning out around the millennium: something at least as funny-strange as it is funny-haha, that has the freedom to be chancy and - with that - only patchily successful, that has supporting roles for Hope Davis and Dylan Baker. Borgli scatters his dream sequences like calling cards. Look, he says, I can do apocalyptic (folks falling from the sky) or merely horrific (folks pursued by bloodied men); I can do droll (Paul walking in on a woman sheltering atop a piano from alligators, then walking off with a shrug), softcore (yes, there's a sex dream) and violently disturbing (as the collective mood sours and the mob turns). I can even do something that resembles a 21st century ad campaign (as the dreams are inevitably remarketed). By that point, however, Dream Scenario has betrayed the limitations of its own ambition; the problem lies squarely within the waking world.

Borgli also turns out to be a student of cringe comedy, which means Paul's notoriety is followed by successive degrees of real-world humiliation: as is often the case with Östlund - though perhaps not to the same Oscar-nominated degree as Östlund - the main character has been conceived as a punchbag who deserves everything that befalls him, and artistic provocation soon becomes indistinguishable from trolling or bullying. (Another strange truth of this century: Ricky Gervais has an awful lot to answer for.) The movie turns out to be two movies twisted together at the centre, and we're supposed to admire that twistedness. The first, made by someone who shares Paul Matthews' passion for evolutionary biology, is commendably curious about the way the world and our heads now work, what captures the popular imagination. The second, made by someone who is extremely online, is about cancel culture, trauma and "woke" university policy, and at no point seems to have realised how tiresome these subjects have become as matters of debate. (It's what happens when people have been weaponised to argue about them 24/7 at Elon Musk's behest.) That movie provides further proof that creatives would do well to log off from time to time, rather than getting sucked into the discourse that is making everything so insufferable - and which, besides, means nothing very much to the majority of people. 

As Dream Scenario sunk further into indie-movie solipsism, sniggering at itself and its characters, I found myself dreaming of David Lynch getting on with his own thing up there in the Hollywood Hills, and coming down from the mountain with work that remains richly open to interpretation. (Borgli's dreams have uncanny and unnerving flickers of that, but then he spoils everything by namechecking Jordan Peterson.) I dreamt of The Truman Show: a mainstream production, from that last great flourish of studio craft, perhaps even a project for which Cage was in the running back in the day, but also a movie that took care to expand and expound upon its initial conceit, that encouraged further, sincere, profound rumination on how we might go about our lives in an era of mass surveillance. Cage, as committed to this pitiful bit as Joaquin Phoenix was in Ari Aster's Beau is Afraid, retains a little of that sincerity: Paul Matthews is finally a character rather than a series of poses or gestures. And Borgli can still make us titter and giggle and spit out WTFs between mouthfuls of popcorn: careers have been built on far less in the modern age. But there's one version of Dream Scenario out there in the ether that would have really made us think - and annoyingly, it's just beyond the ever-twitting fingertips of the one that's landed among us.

Dream Scenario is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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