Nicolas Cage has perhaps never been Nicolas Cagier in what could be his Nicolas Cagiest performance ever. This is a surreal fantasy-satire about the unsafe space of social media and the nature of viral fame, something to be aspired to – or dreamed of – by everyone: the democratised and accessible stardom that can happen to anyone, despite or in some way because of their lack of achievement. This kind of fame can be alchemised from ordinariness, a fame produced and consumed on smartphones and capable of getting inside people’s heads because they can imagine, in fact want to imagine, the same thing happening to them.
Cage plays Professor Paul Matthews, an academic with a decent but unexciting career lecturing on biology and how animals evolve to avoid the mortal danger of standing out from the herd. Cage shows us a dull guy, balding with glasses, habitually wearing an anorak with a furry collar. Privately, he is eaten up with rage at his lack of publications and his career stagnation. Meanwhile, a former colleague has become a huge success with ideas very similar to his, while a college contemporary is a fashionable media academic hosting smart dinner parties to which Paul and his wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson) are never invited.
But it is Professor Matthews’s terrible destiny to become a cross between Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street and Leonard Zelig, the chameleon nonentity in the Woody Allen comedy who insinuates himself into every historical situation of the 20th century. Matthews also contains a hint of the unhappy male lecturers from Philip Roth’s The Human Stain and JM Coetzee’s Disgrace. Matthews’s problems begin when friends, acquaintances and total strangers start doing double-takes at him, their mouths parted in incredulous half-smiles. His students start paying rapt attention. Through some supernatural, psychopathological epidemic, boring old Professor Matthews has started appearing in everyone’s dreams – but always, to his increasing chagrin, as a hilariously unimportant character in the background of some dramatic or violent dream scenario. The NPC in life’s video game has become the ironic cameo star. Matthews experiences actual stardom when news of this phenomenon gets out, but it can’t explain his continuing, nationwide dream celebrity. Yet, as if in some moral parable, Matthews’s charmingly non-threatening persona in these dreams changes when he attempts to monetise the career potential and sexual possibilities.
The writer-director here is the Norwegian film-maker Kristoffer Borgli, with a long interest in satirising celebrity narcissism and celebrity hunger, but whose previous film Sick of Myself I found really heavy handed. Dream Scenario is however a smart film about the uncanny experience of fame, its self-consciousness and self-alienation, in which celebrity creates a sensation of being wary of and secretly astonished by your own famous persona, similar to the weirded-out feeling any of us could have in running into someone we’d been dreaming about the night before. Dream Scenario is a cousin to Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich and Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, and very enjoyable; it is at once strangely light-hearted and heavy with menace.