Dream Scenario | An ingenious comedy that perfectly sends up an era of memes and internet fame

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Nicolas Cage stars in Dream Scenario, a surreal comedy with uncanny parallels with recent memes about a certain Willy Wonka experience. Ryan takes a closer look.

Until a couple of days ago, barely anyone knew who Kirsty Paterson was. Then that whole thing with the knock-off Willy Wonka experience happened in Glasgow, and all of a sudden she was all over social media.

The Scottish actor, children’s entertainer, fire dancer and trainee yoga teacher leapt to internet fame thanks to a single photo: that of Paterson, her sullen-face wreathed in smoke and topped off with a green wig, standing behind what looks like a demented chemistry set.

As news of the dreadful Willy Wonka experience – essentially a handful of tawdry outsized candy canes and bewildered actors scattered about a Glasgow warehouse – began to spread, so too did that picture. Intended to be an Oompa Loompa, Paterson instead looked more like an extra from a cheap 60s sci-fi film, and within hours, she was suddenly a meme.

Artists have drawn portraits of her. Such outlets as The Daily Mail and Vulture have contacted her for interviews. Her photo has been compared to the Mona Lisa (if there’s one thing the internet does well, it’s slathering the ephemeral with hyperbole). There’s even idle talk of turning the whole ‘Willy’s Chocolate Experience’ saga into a movie – Karen Gillan has said she wants to star in it if it happens, which means Paterson may one day be portrayed on the big screen by Nebula out of Guardians Of The Galaxy.

All of which brings this writer, ramblingly, onto Dream Scenario – writer Kristoffer Borgli’s terrific fantasy-comedy starring Nicolas Cage. More so than any other movie in recent memory, the film describes the dreamlike second world most of us inhabit every day – the internet-driven landscape that turns nobodies into celebrities, creates pariahs out of nowhere, and occupies a strange space somewhere between reality and advert-drenched Never Never Land.

Cage plays Paul Matthews, a quiet college professor who could be politely described as a bit beige. In actual fact, Paul is pretty successful by most sensible yardsticks: he’s well-educated, has a ginormous house, two happy-seeming daughters, and a good-hearted wife, Janet (Julianne Nicholson). But Paul is also middle-aged, plain-looking, and not particularly assertive – in other words, the opposite of the sort of people platforms like Instagram would normally take an interest in. As far as the brash, glamour and youth-obsessed modern world is concerned, Paul might as well be invisible.

Right away, though, Borgli drops in a Kaufman-esque element of the uncanny into the protagonist’s mundane world: without any effort or malice on his part, Paul keeps popping up, unbidden, in the dreams of people he’s never met. Initially at least, Paul doesn’t do anything in these cameo appearances – he stands or wanders around, seemingly oblivious to the other things going on in the dream.

As more and more people begin to recognise Paul, his celebrity starts to grow – something that rather appeals to the professor’s previously thwarted ego. Much as Kirsty Paterson is currently experiencing, Paul then begins to go through a peculiarly modern version of Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame. Journalists want to interview him; PR companies want to use his likeness to sell people fizzy drinks; there’s even talk of a book deal.

Gradually, however, the fascination surrounding Paul turns to contempt as his appearances in dreams turn sinister, and then outright murderous.

Through Paul, Borgli explores the two sides of internet-driven celebrity – the side that is quick to celebrate, and its counterpart, which is equally quick to condemn. Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed elegantly explored that latter, darker side – how the unlucky can be just a single tweet or unguarded comment away from global castigation.

Nicolas Cage dresses down as Paul Matthews in Dream Scenario. Credit: A24.

Paul’s situation has strong parallels with one Dr Matt Taylor. You may vaguely recollect the name: Dr Taylor was one of several British physicists involved in the Rosetta mission, a 2014 attempt by the European Space Agency to land a probe on the comet Philae. The mission was a success, and a live stream captured Dr Taylor and his colleagues celebrating euphorically over their achievement.

Dr Taylor made the mistake, however, of wearing a rather loud shirt covered in illustrations of blonde women in suggestive – albeit clothed – poses. Within hours, #shirtgate was trending on Twitter, as Dr Taylor’s choice of apparel was condemned as sexist. It later emerged that the shirt had been made by artist Elly Prizeman, a close friend of Dr Taylor who’d given it to him as a birthday present – “I never expected him to wear my gift to him for such a big event and was surprised and moved that he did,” Prizeman wrote on her blog in the wake of the controversy.

All the same, Dr Taylor became, to quote the New York Times, “a lightning rod on social media for outraged comments and diatribes about sexism, women in science […] inappropriate attire and so on.”

Whatever your thoughts on the appropriateness of Dr Taylor’s shirt – particularly in a workplace – the conversation surrounding it arguably became unedifying, and quickly. Journalists even contacted friends and family members to dig up stories about the physicist’s personal life. The furor was such that he came forward a few days later and made a tearful apology for his “big mistake.”

dream scenario trailer
Credit: A24.

Like Dr Taylor, Nic Cage’s Paul Matthews isn’t entirely blameless in his plight. He has a weakness for flattery and ego-stroking – which leads him to an excruciatingly awkward scene of failed infidelity – and there’s even the quiet suggestion that his dream appearances might be a manifestation of his pent-up, negative thoughts.

“There’s a specific idea in there about the shadow self, as [psychologist Carl] Jung calls it,” Borgli told IndieWire last year. “It’s that the negative traits that you have, if you don’t confront them, they will start appearing and taking over your subconscious. You might start seeing that version of you in dreams. I thought it would be really funny if someone had such strong negative traits that they started showing up in other people’s dreams.”

What Paul’s fame – and infamy – also does is expose and intensify the flaws that were already floating around in his personality: his self-absorption and self-pity, his neediness and lust for validation. But even these are desperately ordinary flaws, really, and Dream Scenario rightly suggests that our modern, interconnected age has a tendency to bring out the worst in all of us.

Whether we’re the subjects of sudden media fascination, like Kirsty Paterson or Dr Matt Taylor, or the people on the other end, making memes or sending angry messages into the ether, there’s a certain kind of fame that appeals to our baser instincts. Playfully, ingeniously, Dream Scenario turns that destructive focus away from its subjects, and back onto the social platforms and media that drive it.

Dream Scenario is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.

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