Kristoffer Borgli is a 38-year-old Norwegian director who finds humor in the place where fame and social media meet. His debut feature, the art-world satire Sick of Myself, came out in America only a few months ago, and now his English-language debut Dream Scenario hits Tarrant County theaters this weekend. This meditation on cancel culture isn’t perfect by any means, but it is from a new comic voice that’s worth hearing.
Nicolas Cage plays Paul Matthews, a professor of evolutionary biology at a fictitious college. One day, he starts appearing in the dreams of millions of people, just standing or walking by in the background. Neither he nor anyone else can discern the reason for this, nor can they explain why neither his wife (Julianne Nicholson) nor his boss (Tim Meadows) are having dreams about him. In a development weirdly reminiscent of the Roberto Benigni subplot from To Rome With Love, this perfectly ordinary man suddenly becomes a global celebrity.
The dream sequences are a comic highlight of the movie, as Paul nonchalantly walks by while one of his students has his head pulled off by a monster and another one is attacked by alligators. Borgli comes from music videos and short films, and these sequences are good for showcasing his punchy style. Cage is also funny as a needy, insecure guy who’s trying just a little too hard to seem cool to his fans, his students, and his teenage daughters (Lily Bird and Jessica Clement).
The conceptual problem comes up when Paul goes from celebrity to pariah after his dream avatar starts raping and murdering people in their dreams. The fallout of this does ring true, especially when his teary, self-pitying online apology backfires on him and his publicist (Michael Cera) starts recommending that Paul be a guest for Tucker Carlson or Joe Rogan. The movie hints that the change is tied to Paul’s failed sexual encounter with a young PR specialist (Dylan Gelula) or to his bitterness over a fellow professor (Paula Boudreau) publishing research in his subfield that trumps the work he’s doing. Still, we’re left to conclude that Paul is being ostracized for reasons that aren’t his fault, and most if not all of the people who’ve been canceled recently have richly deserved their fate, much like Carlson. It would be great if Paul were slightly less helpless in the face of infamy, too.
With all this, it’s difficult to deny Borgli’s talent behind the camera, as he mixes dreams with reality in a manner that’s smooth and funny. Something better than Dream Scenario might be waiting in his future.
Starring Nicolas Cage and Julianne Nicholson. Written and directed by Kristoffer Borgli. Rated R.