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American Dreamz Print E-mail
Friday, 21 April 2006
ImageImagine, if you will, the cluelessness of a country where more people vote for “American Idol” contestants than vote for the President. When Paul Weitz discovered this is actually true of the good ol’ USA, he wrote, then directed, “American Dreamz.” It’s a peculiarly scattershot satire that never takes a good bite out of any of its targets—it’s just too damned reticent. However, it has a good cast and is occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. But the ultimate point of the whole affair is confusing and blurry.

Weitz also directed “American Pie,” where his innate niceness came as a big (and welcome) surprise. In a surprising but successful change of material, he directed Hugh Grant in “About a Boy,” then Dennis Quaid in “In Good Company.” Now he has teamed Grant and Quaid—and added “American Pie”’s Chris Klein, too—in this cheerful but aimless movie.

Grant is Martin Tweed—who insists on being called ‘Tweedy”—the British host of America’s most popular TV series, “American Dreamz”, complete with a Z. (There’s even a song about it.) It’s obviously—too obviously—modeled on “American Idol:” contestant compete before a live audience, then are winnowed down by voting to a final winner. Unlike “American Idol,” the only judge on the show is Tweed himself, though viewers do cast votes, too. And as on “American Idol,” judge Tweed can be vicious and insulting toward those who don’t make the grade—but we don’t see this until the movie is 2/3rds over.

As the movie begins, Tweed is just tossing out his latest (of many) live-in girlfriends; he has to work too hard to make her happy. “You make me feel like a better person,” he says, “and I’m not a better person.” He grandly embraces his egoism & egotism: “I envy myself very deeply.” He runs his show staff with an iron hand, and sends them out to bring back, as he calls them, “freaks.”

We also meet President Staton (Quaid), just re-elected to his second term in office. He’s an amiable dimwit, controlled by his chief of staff (Willem Dafoe), but loved by his steadfast wife (a sorely underused Marcia Gay Harden). He’s feeling a sense of dissatisfaction, and it’s been so long since he’s appeared in public that the media is growing intensely curious. To the shock of his Chief of Staff, Staton has begun to actually READ—and horror of horrors, he’s developed an interest in newspapers. He continues to be withdrawn from public view, and his popularity is plummeting.
So the chief of staff decides the best way to get the Prez popular again is to have him appear as a judge on “American Dreamz.”

Meanwhile, we also meet Sally Kendoo (singer Mandy Moore), a middle-class Midwesterner who lives with her mother (Jennifer Coolidge, also not used well). When Sally is chosen as an “American Dreamz” contestant, she’s ecstatic—and dumps her faithful boyfriend, William Williams (Chris Klein), who on the rebound enlists in the Army.

Over in the Near East, Omer (Sam Golzari) is stumbling through a terrorist training camp run by his uncle. He’s a doofus at almost everything he tries. When his uncle learns that Omer is crazy about American show tunes, he decides to send him to relatives in Orange County, supposedly a sleeper agent who will wait to be contacted by fellow terrorists. The uncle is sure the contact will never happen.

Weitz juggles these four storylines, which somewhat overtaxes the movie. He doesn’t take a clear stance on any of them; he seems to like them all. Even Tweedy occasionally has glimmerings of real likeability, and Sally’s powerful ambition doesn’t really get in her or anyone else’s way.

Omer joins the household of his reasonably wealthy aunt and uncle (they have a Jacuzzi, but no swimming pool), where he learns his gay cousin Iqbal (Tony Yalda) is also way into show tunes, and hopes to be an “American Dreamz” contestant. But when Iqbal is off at the mall, the “Dreamz” recruiting team shows up—and decides Omer would make a great contestant. After a few hissy fits, Iqbal decides his real job is to train his cousin.

After some negotiations, the President’s chief of staff and Tweed work out the details of the President’s “American Dreamz” appearance—he’ll be on the episode in which the final winner is named. When the terrorists learn that Omer will be on stage with the President, they immediately set out to turn him into a suicide bomber.

Right now may not be the best time for a movie to feature a lot of funny Arabs with a funny bomb designed to assassinate the President, but that’s what Weitz is doing.

His satire, however, is almost devoid of any stinging qualities. “American Dreamz” appears to be just an ordinary reality show; there’s no real criticism aimed at “American Idol.” The show simply proceeds as usual with a few backstage shenanigans that play no part in the slowly developing assassination subplot. So what’s the point?

The President is clearly partly modeled on Bush, but Weitz shies away from serious criticism. Staton is struggling to be a better President than he was his first term, and we like him for it. So again, what’s the point here? There’s nothing wrong with a movie criticizing OR praising Bush, of course, but this seems to be doing both, very gingerly.

What about Sally? Is she so intent on making herself famous that she’s willing to use anyone to further her goals? Again, there’s some of this, but we’re also pretty clearly supposed to like her. And once more Weitz blunts potential satirical points. Her boyfriend’s ambitions include becoming manager of his section of a department store; instead of making him seem ridiculous, it merely indicates he’s a guy who knows his limitations.

There’s a scene that all too clearly demonstrates Weitz’s reluctance to go for the throat. Her newly-hired agent visits Sally and her mom in their overdecorated but not unattractive suburban home. He says something about “white trash,” but quickly acknowledges that Sally and mom are NOT white trash. And, in fact, they aren’t—they’re just standard middle-class people. However, Weitz may think that they ARE white trash—otherwise, why bring it up at all? This ndicates he needs to visit the middle of America right away. It’s HIS views that are flawed, not Sally and mom’s.

Grant has a great time turning his own likeability on its head without losing it. Much the same is true of Quaid. “It’s not as if they’re going to launch a major attack that will end all life on Earth,” says Tweedy, “so try to keep a positive attitude.”

Quaid reigns in his likability; he never flashes his killer smile, but he’s still pleasant. Staton isn’t very bright, but he’s such a nice guy, and means so well, that his airheadedness is forgivable. The movie doesn’t work because Weitz just isn’t a go-for-the-jugular director/writer. He likes all his characters and the audience, too. He may have been appalled to learn that more people voted for the winners on “American Idol” than in the presidential election—but the movie doesn’t offer criticism of anyone involved, except maybe Tweed, and even he has some principles.

Omer is the most peculiar character. He’s always sunny and upbeat, and always a little nervous, but that’s from insecurity about his performing abilities, not over being exposed as a terrorist. Golzari gives the performance his all, even when for his audition number, he’s required to sing “The Impossible Dream” while moving like a mime. Even Tweedy, who’s seen a lot, concedes this is “strange.” But this only adds to Golzair’s likeability.

Toward the end, Weitz tries to get serious in a few scenes, including a puzzling one involving Tweed and Sally. You’d think they had the full measure of each other by this point, so the scene kind of stops the movie in its tracks for a few minutes.

On the other hand, with a cast as good as this, the movie still has lots of entertainment to offer. For example, in the terrorist training camp, there’s an intense director filming a training video; Weitz treats this very quickly, very lightly, and never drops the humor ball here. He does elsewhere, and probably shouldn’t have tried for a fangless satire, but Grant and Quaid are very good, and the supporting cast is also impressive. “American Dreamz” is an oddity, both entertaining and disappointing.

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