Martin Aubert Tsai
With “Dream Scenario,” Norwegian filmmaker Kristoffer Borgli (“Sick of Myself,” “Drib”) continues his thematic preoccupation with envy, sudden fame, marketing and strokes of fate. Working in English with an American studio and a Hollywood star on board, his work easily invites comparisons to the conceptual ethos of Charlie Kaufman.
Nicolas Cage and several other cast members made a surprise appearance on stage at the film’s world premiere Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival, where actors were largely absent due to the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike. The film’s studio, A24, has signed the tentative SAG agreement.
Cage, who memorably portrayed Kaufman (and his fictional twin) in the Kaufman-penned “Adaptation,” similarly degrades himself here, playing Paul Matthews, a college ethology professor. Even though he is firmly in office, Paul still craves recognition. His classmate Sheila (Paula Boudreau) is about to publish a paper based on an idea he shared three decades ago and deny him credit for it.
During an evening with his wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson), Paul meets old flame Claire (Marnie McPhail Diamond), who has seen him in her dreams. After she blogs about it with his permission, Paul is inundated with messages from random strangers, all claiming to have dreamed about him. Most of his students report the same thing. Of course, there is no scientific explanation for this phenomenon. Paul somewhat enjoys the attention and hopes to use it to secure a publishing deal for a book he hasn’t started yet.
A branding agency led by Trent (Michael Cera) remembers Borgli’s debut film, Drib, and seeks to monetize it with endorsement deals and film rights to Paul’s life story, while Paul himself is still single-mindedly promoting his as-yet-unwritten book. Finally, another company takes advantage of its unique ability and releases a bracelet that allows the wearer to appear in the dreams of others. Borgli introduces the product with a fake infomercial that is particularly reminiscent of Kaufman. This aside is mildly amusing, but offers no substantive commentary on the absurdity of it all.
Molly (Dylan Gelula), who works at the branding agency, also has dreams about Paul, their sexual nature. After hesitantly flirting, she lures him back to her apartment and instructs him to reenact her dreams. Of course, reality falls far short of the man of her dreams. This particular scene is perhaps the most original and funniest in the film.
Of course, some of the dreams are actually nightmares. During the dream sequences, Borgli draws on various horror tropes to great comedic effect. Moviegoers laugh every time they recognize one of these horror genre exercises in a comedic context.
At first Paul appears in people’s dreams as a passive spectator, but over time he becomes physically violent. Students stop showing up to his class because they believe the mere sight of him is triggering. He also feels unwelcome in public everywhere because others feel uncomfortable in his presence. The college eventually hires a cognitive behavioral psychologist to conduct exposure therapy for Paul’s entire class. Contrary to some of the mumbo jumbo in the film, Borgli didn’t make this up. Fortunately, he does not denigrate this science.
However, at times “Dream Scenario” seems to be making a straw man argument against cancel culture. Paul didn’t do anything to anyone in reality, but people still blame him for his actions in their dreams. He has to cancel his classes for the rest of the semester and meet with human resources, even though he is the one who is the victim and whose car was tagged on campus. Ultimately, he is kicked out of his own home and forced to sleep on a cot next to a propane tank in the basement of his colleague Brett (Tim Meadows).
Of course, it’s okay to question and mock hive mind mentality and exclusion, but the film specifically calls out “cancel culture” here. It’s certainly a pompous catchphrase, but this unconscious conflation comes across as a disregard for the idea that society as a whole should reject proven monsters.
Cage, who serves as producer here, definitely knows how to get involved in some of the most inspired and iconic projects. “Dream Scenario” is another film that cements its legend among film fans. As Paul, his performance is noticeably scaled back, so snippets of dream sequences where he goes completely insane are much more hilarious.
Although the internal logic and message are sometimes convoluted and not fully developed, “Dream Scenario” still proves to be extremely entertaining. It’s always exciting to watch a movie when you don’t have the slightest idea where it’s going to go. With this film, Borgli clearly establishes himself as an exciting talent to watch.
“Dream Scenario” will be published by A24 in November.