Review: ‘Dream Scenario,’ starring Nicolas Cage, Julianne Nicholson, Michael Cera, Tim Meadows, Dylan Gelula and Dylan Baker

November 9, 2023

by Carla Hay

Nicolas Cage in “Dream Scenario” (Photo by Jan Thijs/A24)

“Dream Scenario”

Directed by Kristoffer Borgli

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed U.S. cities, the sci-fi comedy/drama film “Dream Scenario” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Latinos, Asians and one Native American) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An insecure college professor finds out that he’s appearing in the dreams of millions of people around the world, and he experiences the positives and negatives of fame. 

Culture Audience: “Dream Scenario” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Nicolas Cage and movies that take satirical looks at how public images and fame can be used and exploited.

Dylan Gelula, Michael Cera and Kate Berlant in “Dream Scenario” (Photo by Jan Thijs/A24)

“Dream Scenario” offers interesting ideas about fame and the power of perception versus reality. Although the ending of this satirical comedy/drama is a little too rushed, there’s enough in the movie to keep viewers guessing on what will happen next. It’s a big concept for “Dream Scenario,” which sometimes bites off more than it can chew on this concept.

Written and directed by Kristoffer Borgli, “Dream Scenario” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. “Dream Scenario” has some plot elements that were science fiction at the time this movie was filmed and released in the early 2020s, but some of the fictional technology shown in the movie could very well become a reality. That futuristic possibility is what holds this movie together in its intention to be provocative as well as entertaining, because some parts of “Dream Scenario” start to wear thin and almost fall apart.

The protagonist of “Dream Scenario” (which takes place in unnamed U.S. cities) is Paul Matthews (played by Nicolas Cage) a nerdy and insecure professor who teaches biology at the fictional Osler University. “Dream Scenario” was actually filmed in Toronto. Paul (who has a background in ocean biology) and his wife Janet (played by Julianne Nicholson) have been married for 15 years and have two teenage daughters: Hannah Matthews (played by Jessica Clement) is about 15 or 16, and Sophie Matthews (played by Lily Bird) is about 13 or 14.

One day, Sophie tells Paul that he was in one of her recent dreams, where he stood by while objects crashed from the sky into their swimming pool and Sophie floated in the air. The opening scene of “Dream Scenario” shows this particular dream. Paul doesn’t think too much about it, but he thinks it’s curious that Sophie says that Paul has been dreaming about him frequently. He also wonders out loud why he was just a passive bystander in the dream.

Later that day, Paul has lunch with a former graduate school classmate named Sheila Harper (played by Paula Boudreau), who tells Paul that she’s about to publish a research about ant intelligence or “antelligence” that will be published in a magazine called Nature. (Sheila’s research paper is titled “Antelligence Theory.”) The problem for Paul is that this research sounds a lot like his ideas that he talked about with Sheila when they were grad students, but she had no interest in those ideas at the time.

Paul is miffed and a little jealous that Sheila is now getting a research paper published for ideas that he thinks she “stole” from him. Sheila believes that she doesn’t have to give Paul any credit, because she genuinely developed an interest in the research paper’s topic. Their conversation has some tension. Paul and Sheila don’t seem interested in seeing each other again after this somewhat uncomfortable encounter.

Not too long after that lunch meeting, Paul and Janet go to see a play. After the play is over, another audience member sees Paul in the hallway and gives him a warm hello. Her name is Claire (played by Marnie McPhail), who used to date Paul years ago. It’s the first time that Janet has met Claire. Paul tells Janet right away that Claire is an ex-girlfriend.

Claire has something unusual to tell Paul: She has been dreaming about him. In her dreams, she is in danger while he is just a bystander observer. Claire invites Paul to lunch to discuss it further. During their lunch meeting, Claire says she writes for a pyschology online publication called New Inquiry, and she wants to do an article about her dreams about Paul, who willingly gives her permission to write about him.

Soon after this article is published, Paul starts getting hundreds of social media messages from strangers , who all say that Paul is in their dreams too. This is how Paul finds out that Claire’s article included a link to his social media accounts. Paul then becomes a media sensation, as the numbers of people who dream about him grow into the millions, including many people he knows, such as his students and friends. Paul is overwhelmed but flattered by all the attention.

One person who hasn’t been dreaming about Paul is Janet. When he asks Janet what her dream/fantasy about him would be, Janet says she sometimes has a fantasy that she is in danger somewhere, and Paul comes to her rescue, wearing a Halloween costume that Paul had years ago: a replica of the oversized suit that singer David Byrne wore in the Talking Heads’ 1984 concert documentary “Stop Making Sense.”

Paul’s fame attracts a mentally ill man named Tristan (played by Jim Armstrong), who breaks into the Matthews home at night while carrying a knife and threatening to kill everyone in the house. The intruder is apprehended without resistance. Paul and Janet later find out from an investigator that the intruder was having a “manic” episode and meant no harm. Still, the investigator advises Paul and Janet to beef up their security, such as getting alarms and learning self-defense.

Janet is worried about what Paul’s fame will do to him and their family, but Paul wants to cash in his fame while he still has it. He has a meeting with a trendy start-up marketing agency called Thoughts, which is led by Trent (played by Michael Cera) and Mary (played by Kate Berlant), who are smarmy entrepreneurs willing to say and do anything to make money. The executives at Thoughts initiated the contact with Paul, who is ignorant about marketing and advertising.

Paul has to go out of town to meet these executives for the first time at Thoughts headquarters. The first person he meets in the office is Molly (played by Dylan Gelula), the assistant of Trent and Mary. Molly sits in on the meeting. Paul tells Trent and Mary that the first thing he wants Thoughts to do for him is help Paul get a book deal. However, Trent and Mary are more interested in signing up Paul to do advertising for Sprite. Trent and Mary are eventually able to convince a reluctant Paul to go along with their plans.

“Dream Scenario” takes a few unexpected turns which are hit and miss for this story. It’s enough to say that whatever Paul does in people’s dreams greatly affect their perception of who he is in real life. Something changes when Paul finds out that Sheila is getting praise and media attention for her research paper. And then, things get ugly when people start having violent nightmares about Paul.

“Dream Scenario” cleverly lampoons the fickle nature of fame and how people think they “know” a celebrity they’ve never met. The movie features several sequences of how Paul appears to people in their dreams. Many of these sequences are amusing, but some are very menacing and are meant to be unsettling. When things start to go very wrong for Paul, he gets some sympathy and advice from Osler University dean Brett (played by Tim Meadows) and Matthews family friend Richard (played by Dylan Baker), but their friendship limits are tested as Paul’s life starts to get out of control.

Cage (who is one of the producers of “Dream Scenario”) gives a wide-ranging and very watchable performance, because Paul goes through some extreme experiences. “Dream Scenario” is a dark comedy that takes an “ordinary” person and puts that person in extraordinary circumstances. The supporting cast members are also quite good in their roles, but this movie rises or falls mainly on Cage’s talent of being realistically comedic in absurd situations. Some viewers might not like how the movie ends, but the last scene in the movie is entirely consistent with the bittersweet message that “Dream Scenario” is trying to convey about how people use reality and fantasy in their lives, for better or worse.

A24 will release “Dream Scenario” in select U.S. cinemas on November 10, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on November 22, 2023.

Review: ‘Shithouse,’ starring Cooper Raiff and Dylan Gelula

October 16, 2020

by Carla Hay

Dylan Gelula and Cooper Raiff in “Shithouse” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)


Directed by Cooper Raiff

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Los Angeles, the romantic comedy/drama “Shithouse” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A lonely college student has an up-and-down relationship with his dorm’s resident assistant.

Culture Audience: “Shithouse” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in low-key, low-budget, talkative movies about young people who fall in love.

Dylan Gelula and Cooper Raiff in “Shithouse” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The first thing that people should know about the drama “Shithouse” is that even though the title of the movie is about a party fraternity house on a college campus in this fictional story, this movie isn’t going to be like “Animal House.” In fact, “Shithouse” isn’t really about partying or decadent antics of college students. It’s an earnestly depicted story about a couple of students who have a romance that they don’t know quite what to do with when one person in the relationship wants more of a commitment than the other.

Cooper Raiff is the writer, director, editor and co-star of “Shithouse,” which takes place mostly at an unnamed college in Los Angeles, where Raiff’s Alex Malmquist character has moved from Texas and is enrolled as a freshman student. It’s the first time that Alex has ever lived away from home, and he’s had a hard time making friends at college. Alex is very close to his immediate family, which includes his widowed mother (played by Amy Landecker), who doesn’t have a name in the story, and Alex’s 15-year-old sister Jess (played by Olivia Welch).

It would be an understatement to say that Alex misses his family. He cries on the phone when he talks to them and seems to be experiencing separation anxiety. He’s so close to his mother that he could easily be described as a “mama’s boy.” Alex is beginning to wonder if he made the right decision to go to a college so far away from his hometown, but his mother encourages him to stick with his choice and try to make friends.

Alex has a stoner roommate named Sam (played by Logan Miller), who has a completely different social life from Alex. One day, while they’re both hanging out in their dorm room, Alex asks Sam if there are any parties going on that night. Sam replies that the only party he knows about is at Shithouse. Alex and Sam make plans to go to this party.

Meanwhile, the movie conveys that Alex is so lonely, he imagines that his stuffed toy dog, which he keeps on his bed, is talking to him. The dog’s “dialogue” with Alex is shown as subtitles on the screen. This stuffed dog is snarkier and more confident than Alex is in real life.

The conversations that Alex has in his head with the dog are obviously meant to show what the dog “says” is actually a projection of what Alex wishes he could say but he doesn’t have the courage to say it. Fortunately, the imaginary dialogue that Alex has with this stuffed toy is not in the movie for long, or else it would be a really insufferable gimmick.

The stuffed animal on the bed and the bouts of crying that Alex has when he talks to his mother indicate that he’s definitely a “man-child” who hasn’t fully matured. What makes “Shithouse” different from most other movies that are centered on college life is that the “man-child” protagonist isn’t all about sex, partying and causing mischief. It’s rare to see a movie depict a male college student have this type of homesickness and emotional vulnerability about being away from his family for the first time.

At best, Alex could be considered endearingly sensitive. At worst, he could be considered a privileged whiner who needs to grow up and understand that his problems are nothing compared to other people’s problems. The way that Raiff portrays Alex is as someone who is so sheltered that he isn’t even aware of a lot of serious issues in the world, not because he doesn’t care but because he just wasn’t raised that way.

Is Alex even mature enough to handle a relationship outside of his family? He’s about to find out when he accidentally locks himself out of his room when he takes a shower in the hallway bathroom, and he has to ask the dorm’s residential assistant, Maggie Hill (played by Dylan Gelula), to let him back into his room with her spare key. It’s a “meet cute” moment that practically screams, “The rest of the movie will be about this relationship!”

Maggie (who is an aspiring actress) is smart with a sarcastic sense of humor. She’s also a lot more self-assured than shy and hesitant Alex, who is immediately attracted to her. Alex and Maggie see each other again at the Shithouse party, where she just happens to be standing next to him in the coincidental way that telegraphs that they will eventually get together. Their first hookup is awkward because Alex has “performance issues,” but she invites him to stay overnight with her, and they spend the rest of the night talking and cuddling.

Alex is infatuated, but Maggie isn’t quite ready to jump into a serious relationship with anyone. Later in the movie, she opens up to Alex about how her parents’ divorce and her estranged relationship with her father has affected her outlook on love and romance. The rest of the movie is an emotional “push and pull” that Alex and Maggie have over their relationship.

Along the way, they join a casual team of softball players who like to play the game at night, there’s some minor drama over Maggie’s dead turtle, and the movie has very long stretches where Maggie and Alex talk a lot about random things, both deep and superficial. All of the supporting characters on this college campus really don’t do much but appear in and out of these conversations. There is no intrusive best friend, no demanding professor, no third person who causes a love triangle. “Shithouse” pretty much makes this movie all about Alex and Maggie.

The movie’s humor is very low-key and grounded in realism, which is refreshing when so many other movies with this subject matter would go for a lot of slapstick scenarios and/or a steady stream of jokes. And although there’s some “tit for tat” rapport between Alex and Maggie, the conversations sound authentic, not overly contrived. The dialogue is not on the same quality level as the 1995 talkative romance classic “Before Sunrise,” starring Ethan Hawke and July Delpy, because Alex is a lot more insecure and less sophisticated than Hawke’s “Before Sunrise” character.

However, Alex and Maggie’s relationship is more relatable than the one in “Before Sunrise.” That’s because people who’ve had college romances are more likely to have one that looks like Alex and Maggie’s relationship, compared to the relationship in “Before Sunrise,” which had the would-be couple first meeting while they’re traveling in Europe. Instead of having gorgeous backdrops during a train ride though Vienna, the relationship between Alex and Maggie plays out in cramped dorm rooms and during walks at night on a non-descript college campus.

“Shithouse” is by no means a groundbreaking movie. But it does present a gender role reversal of what’s usually in movies about romances between men and women. In “Shithouse,” the woman is the dominant person in the relationship who’s wary of commitment, while the man is the emotionally needy one who wants a commitment. Usually, romantic dramas are about the woman being clingy and wanting the relationship to go to the next level.

“Shithouse” is Raiff’s feature-film debut, and he admirably keeps a consistent tone throughout the film as a director, writer and editor. Raiff and Gelula give very good (but not outstanding) performances in portraying this seemingly mismatched couple who are at different emotional maturity levels. However, what’s interesting about “Shithouse” is that the movie doesn’t present in absolutes who might be “right” and who might be “wrong” in the relationship.

On the one hand, Alex is very unsophisticated about life, but he doesn’t play “hard to get” like Maggie tends to do. On the other hand, Maggie is a commitment-phobe, but she’s honest about why she’s got commitment issues. In some ways, Alex is more in touch with his feelings than Maggie is with hers. But in other ways, Maggie is more in touch with her feelings than Alex is with his. The question is if they can find enough common ground as a foundation to build their relationship, wherever it takes them.

“Shithouse” might not appeal to people who are expecting the usual hijinks that are in movies about college romances. This “slice of life” film realistically portrays that the college experience isn’t just one big party but it’s often when people start to find their identity and what they want out of life. The movie’s concept isn’t very original, but there’s enough authenticity in how this story is depicted that it can strike an emotional chord with people.

IFC Films released “Shithouse” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on October 16, 2020.

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