You know the thing that happened years ago but you still put at the top of your résumé? A defining, but fleeting highlight? Getting famous on the internet for "the thing" – a silly moment, a witty remark, a viral artwork – whether by the stroke of luck or hard work, is almost the same.
If you're lucky (or unlucky), the thing leads to an audience. Maybe a viral TikTok trend and sponsorship, or harassment and online dogpiling. It's 2014's Alex Lee, or "Alex from Target", turned into a viral sensation for a secretly snapped picture of him scanning checkout items. Or more recently, 2023's Sabrina Bahsoon or TikTok's "Tube Girl", having her viral lip-syncing TikToks on the train turn into a Mac Cosmetics sponsorship.
But unlike your LinkedIn, the internet often picks the thing for you – and it sticks. The enigma of 21st-century viral fame is put to trial by Kristoffer Borgli ('Sick of Myself') in his latest 'Dream Scenario', which sees Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage, 'Renfield', 'Pig') enter the dreams of people across the United States in an unexplained phenomenon. A university lecturer on evolutionary biology, he lives every day with mumbling disinterest until the day he shows up in his daughter's dream. Soon, he's appearing in his student's dreams. Then people across the country are experiencing mass cameos of Paul in their slumber. Never mind Paul doesn't actually do anything in these dreams – he passively observes his daughter levitating, his student murdered, his ex-girlfriend sobbing over a car crash – he's there, and that's enough fuel to spin a media sensation.
Against the cautious concern of his wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson, 'I, Tonya', 'August: Osage County'), Paul is turned into a viral sensation with his Gen Z students and a subsequent TV interview. But even Janet can't deny the handy recognition that comes with Paul's fame; she gets a promotion at work to join a new project. Paul's ultimate goal is to turn fame from the thing – appearing in dreams – into gaining a publisher for his book about ant evolutionary biology. They're nowhere close in relation, but he's confident. Plus, the PR agency he's scouted by led by Trent (Michael Cera, 'Barbie', TV's 'Arrested Development') promises him that "pivoting" the audience is possible (well then I'm probably not the audience then). But just like in his dreams, Paul is incapable of putting in the work – he never sits down to write and instead finds it easier to accuse an ex-colleague of stealing his ideas for her book.
The satire of our current media landscape is not sparingly touched upon in 'Dream Scenario'. Borgli attacks the disingenuous nature of modern internet fame, cancel culture, and social media marketing with aggressive clarity.
When the dreams become horrific nightmares, Paul discovers his quick rise to internet fame can lead to a similarly swift downfall. It's absolutely on the nose when Paul logs onto YouTube and live streams a blubbering "apology" video (where he makes himself the victim). It's definitely on the nose when influencers in a content creation house similar to the viral Hype House (a house of famous Gen Z TikTok stars) try to sell stupid things to the masses in their dreams. 'Dream Scenario', very thankfully, dodges overbearing corny satire with Borgli's writing (particularly the opening act) and fantastic performances.
Cage is at one of his career bests, completely inhibiting the bumbling and meek Paul down to the toothy grin and a permanent slouch. I cannot imagine another actor playing Paul as well as Cage, who steers Paul away from a caricature into a fully fleshed-out character.
Cage is at one of his career bests, completely inhibiting the bumbling and meek Paul down to the toothy grin and a permanent slouch. He's hilarious at all the right moments and quickly terrifying in the next. I cannot imagine another actor playing Paul as well as Cage, who steers Paul away from a caricature into a fully fleshed-out character dealing with the mix of his ineptitude, growing greed and the public eye along a phenomenon out of his control. In the official promotional video for Dream Scenario, Cage remarked that his character faces a shoehorning into a viral thing not unlike what he has faced in real life with Nic Cage memes. And maybe that's why, on a meta-level, 'Dream Scenario' works so well. When you think of Cage, what's the first thing that comes to mind? The last I saw of Cage on the big screen was 'The Flash' (2023), a CGI-generated cameo as Superman. If we're being very exact, the last I saw of him was probably a silly GIF on X.
Being known for the thing. You know... like the dude from the thing. The goofy guy from the silly GIFs or that one movie. Our consciousness, aided by the internet, makes things stick. When the dreams turn into graphically horrific nightmares, Paul quickly discovers he's incapable of separating greed for fame and preservation, eventually driving away his loved ones and becoming a pariah (quote, "cancelled", unquote) for the same thing he became famous for.
The third act did leave me disappointed as it gets a bit draggy when Borgli has to pull together an ending for an ousted Paul. I think the best of 'Dream Scenario' comes in its earlier acts and the grounded moments. In fact, the best sequence occurs in a nondescript conference room of the PR agency, where Paul sits at the opposite end of the room while the team pitches how they can link his dreams to sell products. Maybe even reach the dreams of Barack Obama. If it didn't happen, they can always pretend it did. Dylan Gelula (a rising star to watch in the coming years!), Kate Berlant and Michael Cera are absolute standouts – hilariously earnest and all too real as they persuade Paul of the benefits of modern-day marketing and other more questionable actions.
Swinging from dream to reality, comedy to horror – the film features one of the tightest edits I've seen this year. I was ready to praise a great and close collaboration between the editor and director before the credits rolled, and I found out Borgli did both! His style is all over the film, and I'm eager to see what new Hollywood projects he'll make in the future as he moves from Norwegian cinema.
'Dream Scenario' asks us if internet fame creates bad people, or maybe we just keep letting anybody (bad or good) become internet famous for anything. Either way, it doesn't matter what the thing is.