Norwegian filmmaker Kristoffer Borgli is obsessed with the internet’s effect on the collective unconscious, and — in turn — the collective unconscious’ effect on individual self-image. In other words, he makes extremely online movies about modern fame.
Borgli’s scabrous debut feature, “Drib,” was an unclassifiable meta-satire about 21st century marketing, and his follow-up, “Sick of Myself,” told the story of a beautiful young barista so desperate for attention that she begins taking massive doses of an underground Russian club drug that causes the flesh to rot off her bones just so that people might look at her. His third and most complete film, the hilariously surreal (and comparatively sweet) “Dream Scenario,” is a Kaufman-esque cautionary tale starring Nicolas Cage as a nerdy college professor who spontaneously begins appearing to perfect strangers around the world in their sleep. A meme without a modem. At first it’s a novelty, then it’s a blessing, and then it’s a nightmare. Attention is nice, but buyer beware: You have no control over how other people see you in their heads.
Before it becomes what Borgli describes as one of his “constructive bullyings of our collective behavior,” “Dream Scenario” is simply the best absurdist comedy of its kind since “Anomalisa” (the Kaufman connection being further cemented by a Cage performance that feels like it was born from superimposing both of his “Adaptation” characters on top of each other. …And also by a running joke about antkind). We first meet Paul Matthews — bald, goofy, and nasal-voiced to an extent that suggests the inside of his head is just a single giant nasal polyp — in a dream that one of his two daughters is having. It’s a dream that all too accurately caricatures his general vibe of abject uselessness: Various objects fall from the sky (keys, shoes, a human being) and threaten to crush his teenage daughter to death as Paul rakes leaves by the pool, and yet he doesn’t move a muscle to intervene. He just stands there. He doesn’t even have the “Force Majeure” instinct for self-preservation.
Generally it would seem like Paul is a big fucking loser, but he’s tenured at the local university, his kids seem to like him well enough, and he’s married to Julianne Nicholson; by the standards of an unpublished evolutionary biologist professor who sounds like Steve Urkel and wishes that he could take his own face off, our man is doing just fine. But there’s always a part of you that wants more, and that’s the part that tends to get you into trouble. Sure, Paul may have taken his wife’s last name, and yes, someone who teaches their students about the Darwinian effectiveness of zebra stripes — which help the animals to survive by allowing them to blend into the herd — should probably know better, but he can’t help but want a little recognition, even if it might attract some predators along the way.
So yeah, Paul’s not exactly mad when an ex-girlfriend comes out of the woodwork to reveal that she’s been dreaming of him all the time. She can’t imagine why her subconscious brain is fixated on such an unremarkable person from her past (and why it has Paul just stand there regardless of what else is happening in the chaos of her sleeping mind), but it seems worth mentioning. And soon after that, like a hyper-accelerated version of the Mandela Effect, hundreds of other people begin seeing Paul in their dreams as well. And then thousands. And then, just as he reaches the tipping point required to become a new kind of viral celebrity, what he does in people’s dreams begins to change.
Borgli may have had some trouble scaling the body horror in “Sick of Myself,” but the elastic premise of his latest script offers him no such trouble; for all of the high-concept semi-comedies that we get these days, precious few have had this much fun just following their own rules to logical conclusions. The sight of a bearded Cage apathetically standing on the sidelines as someone is ripped apart by a blood demon conjured by their own subconscious is inherently funny stuff (Ari Aster is one of the film’s producers, and his fingerprints are all over it), and Paul’s general befuddlement over the situation in his waking life is likewise the stuff of reliable comic gold. There’s a shit-eating aspect to how much he delights in the newfound attention, and the only predictable thing about this movie is that Paul is going to follow a similar trajectory to John Cusack’s ego-driven puppeteer in “Being John Malkovich,” but the first half of “Dream Scenario” thinks of him with the sweetness of an unassuming nobody who happened to go viral without trying. Like Ken Bone, but somehow even less savvy.
It’s only when Paul’s role in other people’s dreams begins to evolve that he starts entertaining the full possibilities of his latent fame, and Borgli similarly leaps at the chance to make the most of it. What he does with that chance looks very different than, say, what the Daniels recently created from a scenario that allowed them to violate the boundaries of conventional logic, but the results of Borgli’s cringe-driven minimalism are almost as uproarious.
What comes of Paul’s meeting with a branding agency led by Michael Cera is best left for audiences to discover themselves (incepting Obama is just the tip of the iceberg), but one close-up of Dylan Gelula biting her lip in Paul’s general direction — the “Her Smell” actress playing Cera’s assistant with equal parts ironic detachment and psychosexual lust in a performance funny enough to carry the entire movie — is enough to get a basic idea of what comes next. Being in people’s heads all the time is a strange and powerful thing, and very few (if any) films have better or more literally illustrated how the human brain hasn’t evolved to handle such a complete lack of mental boundaries.
Considering how inevitable it becomes that “Dream Scenario” will veer toward cancel culture in its third act, it’s a shame that Borgli struggles to have more fun with that part of Paul’s trajectory. His imagination dries up a bit as the worm starts to turn on the professor’s fame, and while the film’s basic conceit offers an ultra-lucid expression of how it might feel to be shunned by strangers for something you feel like you didn’t even do (Paul’s actions in other people’s dreams being perhaps more tangibly upsetting to the public than a bad tweet, but still just as divorced from physical reality), this last stretch of the story is far too earthbound to land with the same absurdist force as the rest of it.
If “Dream Scenario” never risks curdling into the same kind of nightmare that it visits upon its characters, that’s because of how delicately it dolls out its sympathies. Paul is every bit as pathetic and annoying as any of the online personalities we live with every day, but he’s also at the mercy of a mental construction that has very little to do with him, and so the “cancel culture” of it all saves itself from being too obvious — or, on the other hand, too trollish — because we can never quite pin down the extent to which he deserves to be a pariah. At the end of the day, what Paul is most guilty of is losing track of what’s real; of prioritizing his role in the collective unconscious over the one he plays for the people who actually care about him in real life. And in that way, “Dream Scenario” doesn’t represent a groundbreaking new form of comedy so much as it resolves into an ingeniously modern riff on the most classic of morals: Love is everything, and likes are only good for selling books.
“Dream Scenario” premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. A24 will release it in theaters on Friday, November 10.