“Dream Scenario” is a movie where Nicolas Cage, one of our most memeable actors, becomes an actual meme. It is a companion piece of sorts to 2022′s “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” in which the actor played a souped-up version of himself involved in a CIA plot. In that film, the Nic Cage universe of memorably weird characters collapsed on itself, resulting in a movie that was as self-aware as it was parodic.
A different ploy is at work here. For starters, writer-director Kristoffer Borgli casts Cage as mild-mannered college professor Paul Matthews. He’s a balding, pudgy, middle-aged man with a scruffy, graying beard and glasses. For the past 15 years, Paul has been married to Janet (Julianne Nicholson), and they have two daughters, Hannah (Jessica Clement) and Sophie (Lily Bird).
Paul’s friend Richard (Dylan Baker) hosts fancy parties with other academics, parties Paul would love to go to — but he’s never invited because, to quote Richard, he’s “extremely boring.” Even the students barely show up for Paul’s classes.
Nebbish and ordinary, Paul is the first Everyman Cage has played in ages. He’s also Cage’s most insecure and petty character, traits the actor spins into comic gold throughout the film.
There’s a catch to all this normalcy: For reasons unexplained (and if you’re looking for neatly defined exposition, this isn’t the movie for you), Paul has been showing up nightly in the dreams of people around the world. His students are having these dreams, as are people he’s never met. “Dream Scenario” opens with Hannah’s dream that she is being pulled into the sky (Raptured, perhaps?) while Paul stands idly by, doing nothing.
Paul is offended when Hannah describes the dream. He wants her to know that, if she were in danger for real, he would help. He even cites examples where he was the good dad coming to the rescue. But Hannah, like everyone else, has no control over what she dreams about every night; dreams are our subconscious trolling us while we’re asleep. So Paul’s arguments come off as defensive.
The benevolence of Paul’s dream appearances has an upside — he becomes an instant celebrity. Suddenly, his classes are filled with students and visitors eager to discuss their dreams about him. Borgli re-creates some of them; they don’t feel extraneous because the film often has a dreamlike quality thanks to the cinematography by Benjamin Loeb and the editing by Borgli.
This newfound fame attracts the attention of a sketchy influencer-based company run by Trent (Michael Cera). Though Paul has no idea how he’s appearing in dreams, Trent sees it as an opportunity for advertising. Imagine you’re about to get freaky with your crush in your erotic dreams and Nic Cage suddenly shows up holding a can of Sprite. That’s basically what Trent is proposing, and Paul, drunk on the attention he’s wished for his entire life, is on board.
Paul is even more intrigued when Trent’s co-worker, Molly (Dylan Gelula) tells him that he’s taking a very active role in her naughtiest dreams. She wishes to reenact them, but Paul is apparently faithful to Janet.
It’s here that “Dream Scenario” throws a curveball. Suddenly, Paul’s appearances in everyone’s dreams turn malevolent. And I’m talking the kind of violent stuff that would make Freddy Krueger from “A Nightmare on Elm Street” proud. (Cage even appears in one scene wearing Freddy’s infamous razor-fingered glove.) As before, we get to see some of these dream scenarios, and they’re a bit gnarly — arrows piercing flesh, a gruesome hammer murder. The dreams we only hear about are even worse.
In fact, the dreams are so vicious no one wants Paul around anymore — not the dean (Tim Meadows) of his university, not his students, nor random strangers. His newfound fame becomes an inescapable nightmare. Even his kids are freaked out.
This brutal downturn should have elevated the satire of “Dream Scenario.” Instead, the film gets bogged down in a whiny diatribe about cancel culture. Borgli essentially makes the subtext, well, text; in doing so, he tells us what he’d already been doing a good job at showing.
So what caused this sudden shift in Paul’s dreamworld? We get a scene reminiscent of one in the Coens’s great reimagining of the Book of Job, “A Serious Man.” In that 2009 film, a sinful action by its lead character brings about the Apocalypse. I won’t say what Paul does here, but keep my notion in mind. You’ll know the scene when you see it.
I don’t think the third act of “Dream Scenario” works at all. It’s too obvious. However, its saving grace is Cage, whose petulance in these late sequences never ceases to be as funny as it is uncomfortable to watch. Even in the final scene, which has references to Talking Heads as well as to Joan of Arc, Cage is fully committed to the point of madness.
We expect nothing less from the man who gave us the romance of 1987′s “Moonstruck” and the ultraviolence of 2018′s “Mandy.” “Dream Scenario” splits the difference between those two extremes.
Written and directed by Kristoffer Borgli. Starring Nicolas Cage, Julianne Nicholson, Jessica Clement, Lily Bird, Tim Meadows, Michael Cera, Dylan Gelula. 102 minutes. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square, suburbs. R (Nic at Nite begets bloody violence, bad words, and naughty dreams)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.