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American Dreamz Movie Review

originally posted many years ago

The difference between good satires like Thank You For Smoking and
not-so-good ones like American Dreamz is measured simply how far they're
willing to go and how sharp their tongues are. Thank You For Smoking
worked because its dialogue was wicked, the performances were funny, and
the social commentary cut deep, often toeing a crucial line where grim
facts either smack of hilarious irony or haunting reality. American
Dreamz, a farcical look at almost everything American, from the
president, to foreign policy, to "American Idol," has neither the wit
nor the balls to become what it should be. Sure, director Paul Weitz
approaches these subjects with good humor and a few truly wonderful
lines and ideas, but he doesn't really critique them. He just sort of
shakes his head at them with a smile on his face. Why he does this, I
don't know. Either American Dreamz doesn't want to be too offensive, or
it just doesn't know how to turn madness into comedy.
Another problem might be that it tries to do too much. In his
best films, American Pie and About a Boy, Weitz is very focused,
concerned with building a steady-flowing and interesting story. American
Dreamz, on the other hand, tells almost a half-dozen stories, none of
which Weitz is able to tap to their fullest potential. We begin with a
top-rated "American Idol" type show called "American Dreamz," hosted by
the pompous, scathingly critical, black T-shirt clad Martin Tweed (Hugh
Grant). Tweed takes little interest in the show, other than his camera
time and the ratings, but when he sees a young contestant named Sally
Kendoo (Many Moore), he sees not just a talented, pretty singer, but a
snake with a like mind for Hollywood treachery.
Meanwhile, the god-fearing, unjust war-starting, dimwitted, and
(sh! don't say it too loud!) Republican President Staton (Dennis Quaid)
meets his second term in office with a change. He decides to read the
New York Times over breakfast one morning instead of the official
briefings. "Did you know that there are three different kinds of
Iraqis?" he asks Vice President Sutton (Willem Dafoe). "You mean
Shiites, Sunis and Kurds?" "You knew about this?!"
Soon the president locks himself in his bedroom, poring over any
press he can get his hands on. The public starts to think that he's gone
insane. As a way of reconnecting him with the people, Sutton schedules
Staton to appear as a guest judge on the finale episode of "American
Dreamz."
Still meanwhile a Middle Eastern terrorist named Omer (Sam
Golzari) has come to live with his extended family in Orange County. ut
his is only a pretense—in reality, Omer is waiting for orders to carry
out a devastating terrorist attack. Omer might not be the best guy for
the job though—he'd rather be singing show tunes than heading a
suicide bombing. For one thing, he's not very good at keeping a low
profile, since soon after his arrival in the States Martin Tweed asks
Omer to be on "American Dreamz" (he thinks an Arab contestant might
shake things up). When Omer's sleeper cell hears about this, they see an
opportunity. If Omer can make it to the finale of the show, he may have
a chance to murder the President and strike a fatal blow to America.
[PAGEBREAK] Among these stories are a number of other pretty forgettable
tangents. One involves Chris Klein as Many Moore's boyfriend who enlists
to fight in Iraq after she dumps him, another involves Omer's whiny diva
cousin, and still another shows an underused Marcia Gay Harden as a
surprisingly benign Laura Bush-esque First Lady. Harden's role in
American Dreamz sums up what is wrong with the film as a whole—too
many missed opportunities. I would have loved to have seen Harden as a
sort of schizophrenic First Lady, constantly trying to push her agenda
through her husband and yet still showing some love for him. By that
same token, how much more hilarious would Dennis Quaid's character have
been if the film really went after Bush? Sure, it might've unearthed
some dark topics, but not as dark as the odd way in which American
Dreamz seems to sympathize with Dubya. I can only imagine what a movie
like this could;ve been in the hands of more competent, more cynical
filmmakers. But that is asking American Dreamz to be something it's not,
to be wry and incisive when it only wants to poke fun, and that's not
being entirely fair.
But I have an even greater issue with the film's parody of
"American Idol," a show that already functions on self-parody. American
Dreamz mimics the show's ludicrously with sharp accuracy—here's Hugh
Grant lobbing picturesque insults at the contestants a-la Simon Cowell,
there's the cheesiness and downright mediocrity of most of the singers—but is it really a commentary? American Dreamz doesn't really criticize
the show as much as reinforce why it's so popular. We know, and more
importantly the show knows, that the whole thing is a little farcical
and that we watch it to see bright-eyed dreamers humiliated. That's no
secret. And that's why the jokes fall flat; these aren't jokes about
"American Idol," they are familiar observances.
In fact the only consistently funny story in American Dreamz
is that of Omer and his fellow terrorists. From an opening sequence of
terrorist training video outtakes to an actually tense finale involving
an actual suicide bombing, we find ourselves laughing at a subject
that's awfully hard to make fun of.
The best thing about American Dreamz is undoubtedly the
performances, most of which are simply imitations of real people, but
all done with gusto. Dennis Quaid isn't the first person I would think
of to cast as a George Bush type, but he pulls it off with many a
priceless shit-eating grin and vacant stare. Hugh Grant channels his
most nasty characteristics to jab at Simon Cowell, although his air of
pomposity is nothing compared to the real "American Idol" judge. Mandy
Moore brings a previously unseen deviousness to her role of the cute,
Machiavellian Hollywood ladder-climber, Chris Klein is over-the-top
eager almost to a fault, and Seth Meyers has a slimy if a little
forgettable role as Mandy Moore's ass-kissing agent. The best
performance, by far, is that of Willem Dafoe, who is made up brilliantly
to be almost the spitting image of Dick Cheney. In the screening I
attended, the audience spent so much time laughing at Dafoe's uncanny
appearance that they almost missed the understated punch of his comic
timing. I giggle at the thought of what Dafoe could've done with the
conspicuously missing quail hunting scene.
But the problem with American Dreamz remains. As a PG-13
film that tries to entertain its audience with soft-boiled edginess, it
flattens its ample opportunity to be something really sharp and funny.
Far too often, the admittedly charming humor of this film is lost
beneath cowardice, the reluctance to talk about what's really perversely
entertaining about this crazy country we live in. In the end, American
Dreamz caters to the lunacies of our government and culture when it
should and could have done some small part to knock some sense into them.

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