It’s telling that Borgli’s producer for Dream Scenario is the enterprising horror specialist Ari Aster. His 2023 Beau Is Afraid cultivates a similar patch of thematic terrain, with Joaquin Phoenix starring as a middle-aged wreck navigating the shoals of his own paranoia; done up in shlubby, shuffling sad-sack drag, Phoenix even resembles Cage. The prevailing tone in Dream Scenario is the same lurking, ambient dread that defined Aster’s spooky breakthrough, Hereditary (2018), and Borgli isn’t above exploding the tension with a jump scare (or three, or four). This is especially true in the long middle section, after Paul’s cameos in people’s dreams start turning malevolent (possibly in sync with his newly minted narcissism). Once his role goes from resembling Where’s Waldo? to something more like A Nightmare on Elm Street—stalking, terrorizing, and even murdering folks in their sleep—he begins to experience the dark side of being a household face.
It’s here that Borgli’s script—so sure-footed in the early passages—starts to wobble, sacrificing satirical coherence on the altar of easy jokes. For instance, it’s funny when Trent tells Paul that he needs to lean into his newly sinister persona and maybe arrange a YouTube summit with Jordan Peterson, but it’s hard to say how we’re supposed to reconcile his essentially existential plight with that of a spotlight-hungry conservative ideologue, or to know whether the film is suggesting that, given a long enough timeline, every cultural hero eventually mutates into a villain—a thesis that’s no more profound for being so familiar.
Of course, cogency and absurdity don’t always have to go together: Some movies get better when they stop making sense. Still, if you compare Borgli’s project to one of its more obvious influences, Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich (1999), there’s an important difference in approach: One of the best things about Jonze’s film is its prodigious sense of detachment, the way it greets every one of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s sweaty, spiritual-slash-science-fictional convolutions with a mild, hilarious shrug. (The same calculus applies in 2002’s Adaptation, in which Cage was brilliant in a dual role as sibling screenwriters with different but ultimately complementary ideas about dramaturgy.) As a writer, Borgli has some of Kaufman’s crazed, insinuating imagination, as well as a gift for whipping up bits of physical and psychic abjection, but his direction doesn’t hold the line. There’s a fine line between balancing—or even deftly blurring—multiple tones and failing to maintain one, and the palpable drag in Dream Scenario’s homestretch suggests that its maker can’t quite get on the right side of it. The final scenes, in particular, feel misjudged, shrinking the film’s dimensions to the contours of a Saturday Night Live sketch before a final stab at melancholy that seems to belong to another—and more sentimental—movie entirely.