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The Professor and the Bugman

The Professor and the Bugman

Dream Scenario takes on Culture War schisms from the defiant middle.

Two weeks after the debut of The Daily Wire’s trans “satire” Lady Ballers, Twitter anon @culturaldrop made an oft-elided observation:  “Nothing (culturally) the Right makes/promotes moves the needle because everything is viewed through an ideological lens instead of an aesthetic one. The right/conservatives are aesthetically inept. Always have been.” 

While these comments could seemingly apply to the treasure trove of ideas-driven Oscar bait releasing during the holiday season like the upcoming Civil Rights biopic Rustin, self-proclaimed artists of the Right have shown an absolute inability to do much more than gift-wrap their ideas for an audience of the already devoted.

In truth, the makers of authentic culture, the kind that evokes emotion and parses out the unacknowledged truth of the world, can’t conform to party affiliation because they’d have nothing to say. The artist is a rogue taking the powers that be to task, but never forgetting their targets’ humanity. Such is why the Right’s culture industry could never come close to a movie like Kristoffer Borgli’s Dream Scenario.

Fresh from last spring’s Sick of Myself  and its acute evisceration of millennial victimhood, Borgli teams up with Nicholas Cage for a story about mediocre zoology professor Paul Matthews going viral when he inexplicably starts showing up in the dreams of people around the world. As Paul navigates the notoriety that has eluded him for his entire life, Borgli traces the often tragic trajectory of those who find fame for reasons beyond their own efforts. 

By most standards, Paul would be a success. He’s a solid partner to his architect wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson) and a caring father of two girls. He’s also a tenured academic, even if his students are more lackadaisical than devoted to his lectures about zebra stripes and the pack mentality. But Matthews has also entered midlife with a tendency toward self-flagellation, a reasonably accomplished man who never quite made the academic splash of his grad school pals like his now-acquaintance Richard (Dylan Baker), whose exclusive dinner party guest lists look more like an NPR booker’s Rolodex than a Christmas card list.

Borgli could have easily fashioned Dream Scenario as a parable about the corrosive power of fame. Yet, what makes the movie’s outlandish premise work is that Paul has already resigned himself to the life of an almost, an outlook that makes him ashamed. As his dream cameos spread across the globe, Paul becomes haunted by the fact that, as his fans recount their experiences to him, he’s never doing anything, a cypher in khakis on the sidelines of imagined natural disasters and nightmare dismemberments. 

The latest film from boutique indie brand A24, Dream Scenario shares its off-kilter surreal vision with last year’s zeitgeist title Everything Everywhere All at Once. That Oscar-winner gained traction with the movies-as-therapy crowd for its portrayal of a perpetual victim with self-inflicted troubles who becomes extraordinary through warmed-over superhero tropes. Alternatively, Borgli’s film is more interested in interrogating such victimhood. Paul is the model white male circa 2023. His confidence is nil. He takes a backseat to his less privileged colleagues as he lives a life of quiet desperation.

In an early scene, he’s unable to confront a female colleague (Marnie McPhail Diamond) who built her career in academia and the hipster press by plagiarizing his early research. He’s stepped to the side. He’s done the work. And the result is utter despair. The best Paul can do with his dedication to the life of the mind is take a meeting with the head of a sleazy minimalist marketing firm called Thoughts? headed by a pitch-perfect Michael Cera with visions of Paul’s future Sprite and Obama partnerships. 

Consequently, when dream Paul begins acting more like a Bret Easton Ellis sociopath than an avuncular do nothing, the real Paul is unprepared to deal with the cancel culture mob who tear his life apart. After decades of being worn down, he lacks the moral fiber and bedrock values to come to terms with his fame, a deficiency Borgli illustrates in one of the most hilarious and uncomfortable seduction scenes ever put to film. Of course, Paul can’t figure out what’s happening to him when students refuse to show up to his class because they feel unsafe and he’s barred from attending his daughter’s school play. He’s been quietly complicit in this culture for years. 

Unlike his A24 peers, Borgli is unafraid to push back on the veneer of hipster relativism. “Trauma is trendy!” Paul rages at his dean (Tim Meadows) when the college embarks on a Cognitive Behavior Therapy program to give the students disturbed by his presence a safe space. As he proved in Sick of Myself, the Norwegian Borgli is a deft social critic. But he is also unafraid to implicate us all. 

With Paul’s star fallen, the team at Thoughts? have not given up. In fact, they plan to tackle the corridors of the “alt-right” media landscape home to Jordan Peterson and Tucker Carlson. In less capable hands, such a scene scene would serve to show how far Paul’s social capital has fallen. For Borgli, it’s a direct confrontation with the Right’s vampiric tendency to latch on to anyone on the outs with the elite institutions they long called home in order to bolster the credibility of its cultural wasteland. Dream Scenario is the movie conservative media wishes it could make if, like Paul, it could ever figure out how to take control of its own narrative.

Dream Scenario is now playing in theaters.