Friday, November 24, 2023

An offbeat look at celebrity culture

   Dream Scenario, an inviting display of imagination from Norwegian director Kristoffer Borgli, latches onto a rich idea and has fun playing with it.
   Nicolas Cage portrays Paul Matthews, a tenured biology professor at a small college. Paul bores his students and deludes himself about the book he hopes will lift him from academic obscurity -- if only he could write it. Bald and bearded, Paul has been relegated to life's sidelines.
  And there he remains until he learns that he’s cropping up in the dreams of strangers. Not one or two people, but a legion of folks for whom he’s become a new kind of creature — a dream celebrity.
   Borgli also introduces us to Paul’s wife (Julianne Nicholson) and daughters (Lily Bird and Jessica Clement). Paul's sudden notoriety will plague all of them.
    Not surprisingly, Paul's celebrity attracts an ad agency that wants to set him up with an endorsement program.  Paul’s life as an academic who studies the adaptive power of evolution? Who cares?
    Michael Cera has a nice turn as the head of the agency, a new-breed kind of exec who would be unrecognizable to the suits who ruled during Madison Avenue’s heyday. 
   Cage deftly handles Paul’s foundering as he suddenly becomes a known commodity or, more precisely, a commodity many imagine they know. Ironically, Paul has done nothing to achieve fame other than play recurrent roles in people’s dreams.
    At first, Paul appears in dreams as a passive, ineffectual observer. Eventually, he starts playing murderous roles in horrible nightmares. Borgli skillfully visualizes all of this — although the film's modest quality helps keep effects from dominating.
   As the story progresses, Borgli broadens its scope, taking glancing blows at academia, cancel culture, viral online exposure, student over-sensitivity, and misplaced judgments, people refusing to take responsibility for their dreams. 
    The idea of how a mass phenomenon involving dreams develops remains a mystery Borgli has little interest in solving. Why bother? There's no need for an explanation.
    Fair to say that Borgli doesn’t quite know how to end a film in which cleverness sustains a steady level of amusement rather than becoming a self-conscious expression of trendy social criticisms.
    Borgli gets more out of his premise than you might expect; he turns a film about dreams into a nicely wrought commentary on current realities.

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