Even his daughter Sophie (Lily Bird) starts dreaming about the old man, although he seems to ignore the fact that her dreams involve him standing passively by as she is sucked into the sky. The only person who isn’t sharing in the phenomenon is the one soul who really knows Paul’s worth, his highly present and patient wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson). It is also Janet who warns him to not pursue talking to people about these dreams or seeking it as some form of validation.
So of course he immediately takes an interview on the nightly news to confirm, yes, you fine people are dreaming about me. He also is happy to postpone classroom lectures so students can get selfies with the prof. Heck, he even agrees to be flown to New York City to discuss what he thinks is a book deal. Instead a scuzzy publicist (Michael Cera) just wants to use his dream powers to sell Sprite. It’s a deliciously bizarre setup that happily bides its time before the worm begins to turn: How will this same hapless nobody react when these strangers’ dreams of him turn to nightmares?
The macabre, evil genius of Dream Scenario is it invites the audience to pass judgment on poor Paul Matthews’ soul, as if we were members of the social media peanut gallery who will swing wildly from adoring a dude in a dad sweater one day to loathing him the next, depending solely on the time of the week. Did Paul invite or in some way summon the bad juju that is to come? The answer remains satisfyingly elusive due to Cage’s choices.
Paul is a family man who loves his wife and cares about his daughters, but in Cage’s hands, he’s also a character who seems ill-fitted in his own skin. There is a pitiful overeagerness for validation from others in his searching eyes; and his voice is always rising due to some new anxiety or indignation. Either way, it is never joy that animates him. Even when he is with people who care about him, he is ill at ease. Yet when he meets an ex and discovers she is dreaming of him, he is excited, not because he is in love with her, but because, someone, somewhere, out there cares.
There is thus an Old Testament malevolence to his journey, where like Job, he is accursed to lose everything for seemingly no good reason. He is punished, ceaselessly and for nothing, but like all other congregates in our modern religion of bad faith skepticism, we are invited to diagnose an imperfection that justifies his suffering. He threw a temper tantrum in that one scene, so is he truly innocent? He acts harmless, but folks dream of him passively watching their misfortune, so perhaps his fecklessness is to blame? It is an enigma inside a mystery.
In the end, Dream Scenario is a Kafkaesque nightmare tailor-made for our social media world. Sometimes, folks are transformed into celebrities for the most inexplicable or baffling of reasons, and they can just as quickly be turned into something more sinister. If the internet picks you to be it, what can you really do to stop the digital train from running you over? Borgli therefore outlines every mundane activity that could be ruined for a family man or (ahem) college professor as neighbors and students begin to suspect Paul’s Freddy Krueger. There isn’t a glee, per se, in Paul’s compounding miseries, but the joy of the movie comes from stewing in Paul’s discomfort.