The ever-evolving nature of fame and infamy gets examined in Dream Scenario, Kristoffer Borgli’s follow-up to his dark comedy Sick of Myself. It’s the Norwegian director’s first feature in America, and with it comes the confident backing of A24, producer Ari Aster, and a starry cast led by Nicolas Cage. It all sounds promising, and for a time Borgli rises to the occasion with a compelling, satirical high concept. But most of the goodwill Dream Scenario builds in its first half goes away once Borgli degrades the story into a facile, reactionary attack against cancel culture.
Cage plays Paul Matthews, an evolutionary biologist and tenured professor who lives in a large home with his wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson) and two daughters. At first glance his life is successful, although Paul doesn’t see it that way. He’s awkward, deeply insecure, and aggrieved over his inability to get a book published while fuming over former classmates who get published in scientific journals like Nature. He’s seen as a loser by more accomplished figures in his field, but soon his life gets turned upside-down in a strange way: millions of people begin to see Paul in their dreams, usually standing around doing nothing, and no one has any idea why it’s happening. The phenomenon catapults him to stardom, which attracts the attention of people hoping to capitalize on his notoriety, as well as stalkers and other less-desirable types.
Contained within this idea is neat parallel to virality in the age of social media, and Borgli is at his best when Dream Scenario examines this surreal nature. The epidemic of Paul appearing in people’s dreams, while inexplicable, isn’t too far removed from the arbitrary ways people can become international topics of discussion at a moment’s notice. And despite Borgli working with an actor like Cage, whose career has ping-ponged from high praise to meme and back again, he sidesteps the potential to lean into the meta potential of the role. Donning a bald cap, glasses, and wearing clothes to make him look as milquetoast as possible, Cage channels his eccentricities into this sad sack character to make his personality repellant to those around him. As misguided as Dream Scenario gets, Cage’s performance saves the film from turning into something much worse.
Dream Scenario’s problems start when the dreams change to nightmares where he tortures and kills––so vivid and terrifying that people don’t want to be around him anymore, which puts his career in jeopardy and starts damaging his marriage. The commentary becomes more explicit, with someone using the term cancel culture and Paul’s new agent trying to rebrand him into a Jordan Peterson or Joe Rogan type of villain (Borgli’s script namedrops both at one point, along with an offer for Paul to do an interview with Tucker Carlson). Suddenly, Paul’s job as a college professor makes sense: much of the film’s back half takes inspiration from the various dramas over the years about students protesting problematic teachers on various campuses.
The change in story amounts to hacky jokes, like the fact that Paul’s “cancellation” hasn’t impacted his celebrity status in France, or the backlash he receives when his attempt at an apology video backfires. Borgli’s message––that we’re watching a man become a pariah over collective delusion that he’s done terrible things when he hasn’t––comes through clearly. And Borgli is self-aware enough to know that stance might get him raked over the coals, so he offsets it with the tried-and-true shield of being an equal-opportunity offender, throwing jabs at both sides and making Paul unlikable enough to never be seen entirely as a victim.
Borgli’s writing on this topic has no nuance. It shows little comprehension of why these “cancellations” happen, how it ties into abuses of power, and the institutions that allow those abuses to happen. There’s fertile ground in our current hypersensitive, extremely online culture that’s been used to create good satire in recent years. Borgli is happy to let that potential go to waste, taking broad swings and misses against a changing societal landscape without understanding his targets. It’s disappointing, given how Dream Scenario establishes the potential to become a fun takedown until it opts to flail itself down to the level of a political cartoon strip.
Dream Scenario premiered at TIFF 2023 and opens on November 10.