Balding, bespectacled and bowed by the weight of a thousand disappointments, Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage) moves through “Dream Scenario” with a schlubby passivity. At the college where he teaches evolutionary biology, his students sigh and fidget; during a lesson on zebras, he explains that their stripes keep them safe by ensuring that they don’t stand out from the herd. Not standing out is Paul’s entire vibe.
Then he learns that, inexplicably, he has been popping up in people’s dreams. At first, it’s just the reveries of family and acquaintances — one of his daughters, a former girlfriend — but soon his invasions spread to complete strangers. A droll running joke has dream-Paul refusing to respond to the dreamer’s cries for help: In one scenario, his daughter is being pummeled by falling objects while Paul calmly rakes leaves; in another, a student is being menaced by a gore-soaked pursuer while Paul, sashaying past, declines to intervene. In Paul’s world, as in our own, it’s possible to go viral by doing virtually nothing.
This could seem like a one-trick conceit; but the Norwegian writer and director, Kristoffer Borgli, infuses his screenplay with a sadness that foregrounds Paul’s long-burning need for recognition. At lunch with a former graduate school classmate (Paula Boudreau), who has recently published the book about ants that he himself has struggled to write, he attacks her for stealing one of his ideas. Later, he pushes back defensively when the ex-girlfriend (Marnie McPhail Diamond) describes his inaction in her dream about a dying friend.
“You’re still doing that?,” she asks, incredulous. “Searching for the insult?” It’s perhaps the movie’s most important line, adding layers to a character who could seem a fool. But Paul is dull, not despicable, a vaguely resentful academic who’s loved by his stoic wife (Julianne Nicholson) and yearns to be included in their neighbor’s famed dinner parties. His newfound celebrity has him perplexed, then pleased, and ultimately petrified when the movie takes a dark turn and the dreams become nightmares. Now Paul stands out. Now he will be hunted — and not only online.
Pondering the downside of notoriety and our willingness to exchange safety for fame, “Dream Scenario” is often funny and frequently surreal. Borgli’s previous feature, “Sick of Myself” (2023), also examined someone going to extremes to gain the attention she felt she deserved. Here, though, he has more ideas than space to execute them, and the movie’s third act can feel overloaded and indecisive of where it wants to land. Sharp, unheralded cuts from dream to reality leave us little time to get our bearings; yet they also leave Cage free to roam the length and breadth of his considerable acting range. The sight of Paul, in his shabby parka and scrubby beard, attempt to re-enact a young woman’s erotic dream — at her request — could make you want to put your eyes out.
Full marks in this scene, though, to the terrific Dylan Gelula who, along with other supporting players like Michael Cera (as an advertising pup who wants Paul to carry a can of Sprite into people’s dreams) and Tim Meadows (as Paul’s department head), help ground the film’s cringe comedy. In the end, “Dream Scenario” is less interested in cancel culture than the fickleness of a mass audience that can rapidly swerve from adulation to condemnation — even when, like Paul, you really haven’t done anything at all.
Rated R for awkward groping and awful outerwear. Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes. In theaters.