Monday 13 November 2023

Dream Scenario | review by Stephen Theaker

Paul Matthews (Nicolas Cage) is a mid-to-late-career professor with tenure. He is married to a beautiful wife (Julianne Nicholson), has two daughters, and lives in a big gorgeous house, but he is still dissatisfied with life. He dreams of finding a publisher for his book on ant intelligence, but has never actually got around to writing it. His classes are poorly attended, engagement from students is low, and he can't do anything about an old colleague who is planning to build on his unpublished work.

And then he starts to appear in people's dreams, just wandering through them, not doing much other than waving or walking by. When an old girlfriend writes an online article about him appearing in her dreams, and what she thinks it means, it turns out that many other people have been dreaming about him too. He is delighted to have his fifteen minutes of fame, but after a mutually unsatisfying extramarital encounter with a pretty young woman from his new management firm, his mood worsens. His appearances in dreams become frightening, and everyone turns against him.

I thought this was an interesting film. During the earlier, more humorous parts, I felt it would have made a better film for Adam Sandler, or a younger Woody Allen, actors who are both very good at portraying doofuses caught up in situations beyond their control. According to IMDB, it was in fact in development as a film for Adam Sandler, to be directed by Ari Aster, before writer Kristoffer Borgli took the reins. But as it turns darker, Nic Cage's casting made more sense to me.

As Paul's students and acquaintances turned against him, utterly unfairly, for events that had only happened in their imagination, it was impossible not to think of real-world incidents of campus cancel culture – such as Kathleen Stock in the UK, or Carole Hooven in the US, to name just two – where academics have been driven out of their jobs by students, colleagues and administrators because of the people they are imagined to be rather than what they have actually done or said.

I was quite pleasantly surprised when the film made that metaphor explicit. The boss of Paul's wife says, even while dropping her from a job, that he doesn't like cancel culture. The students talk in terms of safety and trauma and triggers regarding his presence in class, even though he has done nothing at all to them. And Paul's new manager (played to perfection by Michael Cera) says the hostility doesn't mean they will drop him, they will simply pivot to controversy being his brand, and see if they can get him on Joe Rogan.

At that point the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson gets a mention. Given that Peterson is (I believe) to some extent a Jungian, and the underlying premise of the film is that (slight spoiler here, I suppose) the collective unconscious is real, mentioning him and not bringing him into the story, as a talking head on a television show or something like that, felt to me like a broken link. What would he have made of it all? What would other Jungians have made of it?

But I suppose that reflects my biggest problem with the film, that although its main character is an academic, he makes no effort to study or explore what is happening to him. It just happens. He doesn't even try staying awake to see if that prevents his appearances in other people's dreams. Perhaps that reflects his character, that he passes up the chance to get down to work and study a truly remarkable phenomenon. But for a science fiction fan the film was unsatisfying in that regard, especially when it takes a more science fictional and satirical turn towards the end.

As a portrayal of cancel culture, though, I thought it was excellent. That's exactly how it works: students attacking their teachers over the thoughts in their own heads, and colleagues so afraid of getting the same treatment that they do nothing at best, join the mob at worst. And as a study of a disappointed middle-aged man, it was excellent too. More dreams might have been fun, but the images from the dreams they show are extremely memorable. Don't watch it late at night unless you want Paul Matthews in your dreams too. Stephen Theaker ****

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