Norwegian-born, L.A.-based director Kristoffer Borgli has built his filmmaking career satirizing the way brands capitalize on the narcissistic impulses of young people. DRIB (2017) told the story of Borgli’s real life friend Amir, an absurdist performance artist who nearly scammed his way into becoming the face of a major energy drink. Borgli broke out earlier this year with Sick of Myself, a black comedy about a young woman so desperate for brand attention that she makes herself deathly ill. Dream Scenario marks Borgli’s first full English-language film, as well as his most ambitious film to date, in terms of budget, content and genre. In collaboration with Hereditary director Ari Aster, who helped produce Dream Scenario for A24, Borgli has expanded past straightforward black comedy and into surrealist horror-comedy.
Not only are narcissism and corporate shallowness in Borgli’s crosshairs, but he has also added “cancel culture” to the list. Nicolas Cage stars as Paul Matthews, a balding, tenured university biology professor so unremarkable that it’s almost impressive. His younger daughter Sophie (Lily Bird) has a strange dream where mysterious objects fall from the sky, she begins to levitate and her father just stands there, watching.
Inexplicably, everyone around him, including his students and even strangers, starts having a similar version of Sophie’s dream; some kind of disaster is taking place, and Paul stands there, doing nothing. An ex-girlfriend comes up to him after a play to tell him she had a dream about him, much to the chagrin of Paul’s lovely wife, Janet (Julianne Nicholson). At first, Paul’s already weak masculinity is bruised by the implication that he does nothing in the face of a crisis, but then the viral fame starts rolling in, and his ego is inflated tenfold. Janet is (rightly) skeptical of the whole thing, but she’s willing to stand by her man throughout the strange ordeal.
Since this is a Borgli picture, where there’s viral fame, there’s a brand deal. Paul is quickly contacted by an ad agency called “Thoughts?” run by Trent (Michael Cera doing a toned down version of Brett Gelman’s DRIB character) and his business partner, Mary (the always funny Kate Berlant). They think he’d be perfect to work on an ad campaign for Sprite, but Paul is more interested in using his viral fame to get his foot in the door of the publishing world, so he can finally publish his ant farm research, which is written only in his head. This does not go over well with the ad people.
In a rather convenient twist of fate, the only person in the world who is having sex dreams about Paul is the hot young ad agency intern Molly (a habitually underused Dylan Gelula). Molly’s sole motivation is that she wants to know if sex with Paul in real life is as great as it is in her dreams; a comically timed fart prevents them from taking things too far. When things turn sour for Paul later, it would make sense that his, albeit brief, affair with Molly would come back to bite him in the ass. Bewilderingly, Molly is absent from the rest of the narrative, which calls into question why her character was written in the first place, other than to provide titillation. There’s certainly nothing wrong with titillation, but Borgli’s inability to use sex to make a larger point left me with intellectual blue balls.
Unlike Borgli’s previous films, Dream Scenario is less about the art of the brand deal, and more about the swift loss of the brand deal, once Paul’s “dream scenario” shifts from a bizarre, but ultimately harmless phenomenon to a terrifying nightmare. Soon, Paul isn’t just a passive bystander in people’s dreams—he’s the perpetrator of unspeakable violence in their nightmares. Once again, Sophie’s subconscious is the canary in the coal mine: Hers is the first nightmare to feature Paul as a bloodthirsty killer. Sophie’s friends at school start calling her dad Freddy Kreuger, and he’s less welcome in public places. Soon, not only are his students skipping class, but they’re also calling on the university administration to fire him for the trauma he’s caused.
Thanks to Mandy cinematographer Benjamin Loeb’s harrowing photography in the nightmare sequences, the idea that Paul could be plausibly “canceled” is successful. These aren’t simply quirky little horror stories, they’re twisted episodes of sheer terror that belong in the new horror canon next to Aster’s films.
Unfortunately for Paul, there are steep consequences for these brutal crimes that he did not commit, despite the fact that he did not commit them. He didn’t truly appreciate what he had, and now he must fight to win his wife back. Does Paul deserve to lose his job and his family, does he deserve to be a pariah, just because the “lived experience” of large swaths of people is discomfort around Paul? Should the discomfort of some dictate the public lives of others?
Less singular in its vision than Sick of Myself, Dream Scenario may be a hilariously scary ride, but by the final 30 minutes, Borgli has lost sight of his original aims. Yes, taking cheap shots at influencers is amusing, but it’s not as original as it may have been a few years ago, and it’s not worth derailing the entire plot for. The idea that the tech industry (represented by a Nicholas Braun cameo) will one day invade our dreams is one that is ripe for satirical investigation, but it’s also introduced too late in the film to make much of an impact, weakening the melancholic ending.
Nicolas Cage has been known for his work as an action star since the 1980s, but within the last ten years, he has chosen a wide variety of roles that have highlighted his versatility. Just in the last five years, audiences have been delighted to see him in serious dramas (Pig), goofy horror-comedies (Renfield) and even an action-comedy in which he plays himself (The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent). Cage’s latest performance may at first be reminiscent of his 2002 work as Charlie Kaufman (and Charlie’s fictitious twin brother Donald) in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation., but the two performances have little in common. Sure, Paul and Charlie are both frumpy white guys who are off-putting to the general public, but Paul, at his core, is innocently oblivious of his shortcomings, whereas Charlie is all too painfully aware of his.
That said, the bittersweet last frame of Dream Scenario brings to mind Kaufman’s own acerbic writing and Michel Gondry’s darkly whimsical direction on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: A man enters his lover’s dream with the aim of winning her back. Like a dream itself, Dream Scenario guides us through multiple tone shifts, from comedy to horror, rather smoothly, but the head-first jump into sincere romance toward the end of the film is bumpy, even if it is silly and sweet, and the imagery is lovely. While Kaufman has made investigating his own romantic neuroses his bread and butter, in a way that is so self-aware that it’s almost painful, Borgli has yet to find his own balance between sincerity and absurdity.
Director: Kristoffer Borgli
Writer: Kristoffer Borgli
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Julianne Nicholson, Lily Bird, Jessica Clement, Michael Cera, Kate Berlant, Dylan Gelula, Tim Meadows
Release Date: November 10, 2023
Brooklyn-based film writer Katarina Docalovich was raised in an independent video store and never really left. Her passions include sipping lime seltzer, trying on perfume and spending hours theorizing about Survivor. You can find her scattered thoughts as well as her writing on Twitter.