Nicolas Cage Tries (and Fails) to Make Cancel Culture Funny
Ask Nicolas Cage what drew him to his new film Dream Scenario, and he’ll tell you that he related to the script because of what it had to say about celebrity. “For me, this movie is an interesting analysis about the experience of fame,” he said in a New York Times interview, noting how strange it was to see a YouTube video mashup of all his biggest on-screen freakout moments. “(I)t started going viral, exponentially growing, and became memes,” he recalled. “I was confused, I was frustrated and I was stimulated. I thought, ‘Maybe this will compel someone to go look at the actual movie and see how the character got to that moment.’ But on the other hand, I was like, ‘This isn’t what I had in mind when I decided to become a film actor.’”
The highly-memeable star presumably exorcized some of those anxieties with Dream Scenario, which opens on Friday and is, for a while, a very funny Charlie Kaufman-esque surreal comedy about a nobody who becomes an internet sensation for the weirdest of reasons. This isn’t wild-and-crazy Cage but, rather, the more milquetoast one we got in Adaptation, which was written by Kaufman. It’s such a shame, then, that the movie eventually goes off the rails. What starts out as a clever commentary about fame eventually devolves into a swipe at the most boring modern topic: cancel culture. Instead of being a meditation on our nonstop fascination with celebrity, Dream Scenario settles for tired whines about the fear of getting labeled “problematic.” Having your privacy invaded and your art reduced to dopey TikToks: Yes, absolutely, that’s annoying. Complaining about our era of outrage? Let’s slow down a second.
The movie introduces us to Paul (Cage), a college professor teaching evolutionary biology, who’s a massive putz. His students don’t pay attention to his boring lectures. His wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson) loves him but knows how ineffectual he is. At one point in his life, maybe he could have made something of himself — he swears he had this brilliant insight in his field that was then stolen by someone else, making them renowned — but now he’s just a balding, middle-aged sad-sack. His peers went on to great acclaim. He’s just a teacher.
But, then, something happens. Random people start coming up to him in public: They don’t know Paul, but they recognize him from their dreams, where he’s just hanging out there observing the main action. It’s weird — no one can explain what’s going on — but quickly Paul becomes one of those novel human-interest stories, gaining a following online and in his classes. (College kids suddenly seem interested in what he has to say.) This never-was starts letting this celebrity go to his head — especially when the sexy young associate (Dylan Gelula) at the marketing firm that starts repping him wants to reenact a sex dream she had that starred Paul. From Paul’s perspective, life didn’t work out the way it was supposed to — now, thanks to his appearance in people’s dreams, the world is finally appreciating him in the manner he feels he deserves.
Dream Scenario is written and directed by Kristoffer Borgli, whose previous film Sick of Myself also touched on the sickness of modern celebrity culture, and initially he crafts a cutting dark comedy about people’s need to be celebrated for their unheralded greatness — even if, actually, they aren’t all that great. The utter bizarreness of Paul’s sudden burst of notoriety speaks to all the inane nonsense that, for a brief moment, became the biggest deal in the world. (Remember when people lost their mind over a grumpy cat?) But eventually, a darkness will descend upon Paul’s good fortune: Just as inexplicably as he began popping up in strangers’ dreams, he then starts taking a more active role, turning violent. His pleasant nocturnal appearances morph into him being the star of people’s nightmares, a real-life Freddy Krueger who’s brutalizing and murdering the dreamer. The world loved Paul, but now they hate him.
There’s a lot of humor to be derived from the fickleness of internet celebrity — especially when the person isn’t emotionally or constitutionally prepared for when their 15 minutes are up. (I recently rewatched the great 30 Rock episode in which Liz’s old boyfriend Dennis is briefly the toast of New York for being the “subway hero” — he screws that up quickly because he’s Dennis.) Paul’s insecurity and neediness make him ripe for a comedic comeuppance once he thinks he’s entitled to be treated like a superstar, but Dream Scenario goes in a direction that is a lot less intriguing and, frankly, a bit troll-y. It’s “provocative” without actually being provocative.
I don’t want to risk spoiling too much, but I will say that, once Paul is assaulting people in their dreams, he has to deal with the fallout. His marketing firm decides to dramatically shift strategies, positioning him like he’s the nerdy-professor version of Joe Rogan, trying to capitalize on his “problematic” nature. There are public outcries for him to apologize for what he’s doing to people in their dreams — even though Paul is actually blameless. Hey, he’s an innocent victim! Why is he being canceled?!? Why won’t anyone listen to his side of the story??!?
These, of course, are the familiar protestations launched by people in the public eye who have been accused of sexual misconduct — as well as lesser crimes, like espousing anti-trans attitudes or other insensitive remarks. There’s no question that celebrities now live in a constant fear that one wrong thing they say in an interview will get misconstrued, forcing them to apologize lest they be canceled. Sane people can debate the validity of so-called cancel culture, but in a social-media age when reactions (and overreactions) can spread like wildfire, famous folks are even more guarded than they used to be, not wanting their words, expressed inelegantly, held against them.
Interestingly, Cage touched on this in his Times profile, confessing, “I don’t want to walk on eggshells and keep editing myself because I want to give you an authentic interview, and I want that to be enjoyable for your readers. But there’s a dance there. I know something’s going to get cherry-picked and cobbled together, and they’re going to take it and say I said something I didn’t say.” As someone who interviews celebrities, I get that anxiety — and recognize the power that writers have in presenting their subjects’ words to readers. Imagine if everything you said, every moment of every day, was transcribed or put on YouTube for all to dissect? We’d all be paranoid.
But my sympathy for celebrities doesn’t mean I’ll accept the shallow examination Dream Scenario gives the subject. Borgli goes in for a lot of cheap gags. Sure, Paul is a pariah, but he’s still big in France, ha ha ha! You know how permissive the French are! The film doesn’t do a sharp enough job of making Paul’s freaky fall from grace specific to his flaws and foibles. Instead, Dream Scenario’s salvos against cancel culture feel flip and reductive, using Paul’s dilemma as an excuse to vent about larger issues that bother Borgli. Rather than exploring why prideful and dorky Paul would be especially mortified to be considered a public menace, the movie settles for smug takedowns.
Fittingly, one of Paul’s favorite pet topics is the study of herd culture, and to his ironic horror, he watches as the phenomenon plays out in real time. But Dream Scenario’s satire comes off as reactionary, positioning him as the target of a world gone mad. To be fair, Paul has a point — yes, he didn’t do anything wrong — but Cage’s amusingly pathetic performance ends up being sacrificed in the name of complaining about how overly sensitive everyone’s gotten and how nuance has been lost in our public discourse. The greater irony is that Dream Scenario lacks such nuance itself: Paul may be a hapless, self-destructive everyman, but it’s really society that’s the problem, not this amusing nobody who wanted a taste of the notoriety that had been denied him his whole career. Borgli doesn’t thread that needle — he just throws up his hands about how silly we are.
Such an argument forgets the genuinely problematic individuals who deserved their public shaming. And it furthers a prevalent (and wrongheaded) belief that any of us could get canceled at any moment, so watch your back. The whole time, I kept thinking about how Charlie Kaufman would have cut deeper, asked more difficult questions, been more critical and studied his premise from every perspective to wring every fascinating idea out of it. That’s what doesn’t happen in Dream Scenario. I have no doubt Nicolas Cage feels the movie speaks to the terror of losing one’s identity to the internet’s virtual mob. But its insistence that cancel culture is largely a joke doesn’t land in a way that I think is funny at all.