Film Reviews

Dream Scenario & Ferrari

Published January 7, 2024
Is this the man of your dreams?

Another year, another burst of films released in time for the awards season. To cover the field expeditiously I’m going to look at two of them: Kristoffer Borgli’s engaging indie, Dream Scenario, and Michael Mann’s bio-pic, Ferrari, which – surprisingly enough – is also an independent production.

Dream Scenario may have the smaller budget, but it is full of big ideas tossed around in haphazard fashion by an emerging Norwegian director with a taste for social satire and black humour. In his first English-language film, Borgli casts the volatile Nicolas Cage against type, as Paul Matthews, a middle-aged professor of evolutionary biology who exudes mediocrity. Bald-headed and bearded, badly dressed and painfully aware of his own lack of achievement, one look at Paul gives us the message. When he opens his mouth to tell his students how the zebra’s stripes enable it to blend in with the crowd, or to drone on to his wife about the book on ants he’d like to write, one feels a mixture of pity and embarrassment. Paul is the walking definition of a dag.

For Cage it’s a far cry from last year’s Renfield, in which he played a deliriously over-the-top, Count Dracula. What’s most impressive is the way he captures every nuance in this most boring of personalities. Paul’s ego may be battered, but he is quick to feel indignant at a colleague’s success or indulge fantasies of himself as a great intellectual.

When fame does come along, it’s not through his academic labours, but something bizarre and inexplicable. One of Paul’s daughters is seeing him in her dreams, where he remains completely passive, no matter how surreal and frightening the scenario. Soon his students are having the same dreams in which Paul might stroll by and give a little smile or a wave while they are being murdered.

Within a week or two, thousands of people are seeing Paul in their dreams. He has become suddenly famous and is treated like a celebrity. A super-cool marketing firm invites him for a meeting and tells him he is “the most interesting man in the world right now.” One of the group – a young woman named Molly (Dylan Gelula), confesses that he appears in her sexual fantasies, which will lead to a close encounter of the most humiliating kind.

From this point Paul’s dream appearances take on a new complexion. No longer a passive non-entity, he becomes a murderous psychopath, beating, torturing and raping his innocent victims. The predictable reaction ensues as students flee his classes, and he is rebranded as an object of public fear and hatred.

Paul’s new status as a bogeyman is just as unearned as his previous celebrity. He has no explanation for any of it, and neither has the director. Meanwhile, the social media that propelled him to worldwide fame now transforms him into a pariah. If there is any reason why Paul began invading strangers’ dreams, it is never revealed. Neither can we be sure why the nature of those dreams changed overnight. As comedy devolves into horror, we can only feel sympathy for this unsympathetic character.

By dispensing with conventional explanations and shooting the dream sequences with the same crispness as the real-life storyline, Borgli forces us to share Paul’s confusion and alienation. He shows us the ephemeral nature of fame in the age of ‘influencers’, in which novelty counts for more than achievement, where going viral includes the risk of becoming malignant. He shows how a professor may be cancelled through no fault of his own, merely through association with something that causes offence.

The temptation of social media fame is presented as a bargain with the devil that can quickly turn sour. Even more alarming is the blurring of lines between reality and the virtual world, which enables boring Paul to become (momentarily) the most interesting man on the planet, and then a violent criminal. For many people there is no longer any boundary between fact and fiction, with the coming AI boom set to make matters worse. When such a catastrophe is driven by a commercial imperative there’s little chance of avoiding it. Taken as a parable, one shouldn’t expect Dream Scenario to deliver a neat resolution, as we’re only at the beginning of the story.

Fast cars and tight budgets… Ferrari.

To get to grips with Ferrari, one needs to be clear about what it is, and isn’t. It’s a film about racing, but not narrowly focused on scenes of cars speeding around a track at hair-raising speeds. Yes, there’s plenty of that, but an equal amount of time is spent negotiating the hairpin bends of Enzo Ferrari’s love life, as he zooms back and forth between his wife and his mistress. The dangers are made clear in the early scenes, when he returns to the conjugal home after a night away, to be greeted with a gun shot from his angry spouse.

Ferrari is not a Hollywood film, even though it often feels like one, which may be because director, Michael Mann, is a veteran of many such productions. Going down the independent route has presumably enabled Mann to make the movie he wanted to make, rather than the one the studio might have preferred. To translate, this means more real-life action and stunts, less CGI. It also means a more developed human drama, although there’s a natural tendency for viewers (self included) to feel slightly impatient between car races.

Although the film begins with Enzo Ferrari as a young man racing an early model car, we quickly flip to 1957, when he is almost 60 years old. The mature Enzo drives his employees to ever greater extremes, but never gets behind the wheel himself. The problem is that his business is virtually on the rocks. He needs a win in the prestigious Mille Miglia, in which cars travel a thousand kms around Italy, because success in the race is the way to attract an injection of capital.

Enzo’s marriage has been blighted by the death of his young son, Dino, which sees him and his wife visiting the graveyard on a daily basis, but not together. By way of consolation, Enzo has begun a second relationship with a factory worker named Lina, who has given him a new son and heir. This is not the kind of thing he can tell Laura, who has a controlling interest in the firm, but his secret is becoming ever harder to keep.

Despite his entirely appropriate name, Adam Driver may not seem a natural fit to play the patrician Ferrari, but a little make-up and an imposing set of sunnies works wonders. It’s Driver’s second Italian business tycoon in recent years, following his role as Maurizio Gucci in Ridley Scott’s The House of Gucci (2021), so he’s already practiced the accent. By now viewers can only be resigned to listening to actors speaking English with accents to let us know they’re supposed to be Italians. It’s a dumb convention that dies hard.

Penélope Cruz is entirely credible as Enzo’s temperamental wife, Laura, but Shailene Woodley is a peculiar choice to play Lina. There can’t have been any shortage of local talent.

When we disentangle ourselves from Enzo’s personal soap opera, there are some thrilling scenes with cars speeding around the track or barrelling across the bumpy roads of Italy. There are also spectacular accidents, confirming that racing in the 1950s was a great way of putting one’s life on the line. For Enzo, this is all part of the job. No guts, no glory. It’s gladiatorial.

Despite the stylish sunnies and the accent, one never quite warms to Enzo, who seems happy to send his drivers on kamikaze missions if it raises the status of the brand. He has that imposing masculinity one finds in most of Michael Mann’s lead characters, even if his private life is a shambles. Nowadays that persona feels decidedly old-fashioned.

Whenever we get out of the car, Ferrari merely plods along, allowing our attention to wax and wane. This inconsistency of tone is not critical, but it’s distracting, making it impossible to become completely immersed in the story. There’s no underdog theme, no rags-to-riches motif, only the spectacle of a wealthy businessman aiming to preserve his failing empire, by desperate means if necessary. One can admire Enzo’s chutzpah, his determination and ambition, but for most viewers, I suspect he begs that vital question: “Would you buy a used car from this man?”





Dream Scenario

Written & directed by Kristoffer Borgli

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Julianne Nicholson, Lily Bird, Jessica Clement, Tim Meadows, Dylan Gelula, Michael Cera, Kate Berlant, Paula Boudreau

USA, MA 15+, 102 mins






Directed by Michael Mann

Written by Troy Kennedy Martin & Brock Yates

Starring: Adam Driver, Penélope Cruz, Shailene Woodley, Patrick Dempsey, Gabriel Leone, Sarah Gadon

USA/UK/Italy/China, MA 15+, 130 mins


Published in the Australian Financial Review, 6 January, 2024