A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

AMERICAN DREAMZ j
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2006, PG-13, 107 mins.

Martin Tweed: Hugh Grant / President Staton: Dennis Quaid / Sally Kendoo: Mandy Moore / Chief of staff: Willem Dafoe / First Lady Staton: Marcia Gay Harden / William Williams: Chris Klein / Martha Kendoo: Jennifer Coolidge / Chet Krogl: Seth Meyers

Directed and written by Paul Weitz

 

“Imagine a country where the President never reads the newspaper, where the government goes to war for all the wrong reasons, and more people vote for a pop idol than their next President.”

- Tagline from AMERICAN DREAMZ

Great satires – much like bloodthirsty vampires – go straight for the jugular and never look back.  Weak satires are ones that are too timid and afraid to even contemplate looking at a neckline. 

Recent examples, like the gloriously wicked and cheerfully offensive THANK-YOU FOR SMOKING, knew impeccably how to harness story that was equal parts hilarious and mean-spirited in it’s tasteless spitefulness.  I think that AMERICAN DREAMZ could learn a lot from Jason Reitman’s delicious lampooning of the tobacco industry.  Certainly Paul Weitz’s work here has ambition, to be sure, but it lacks the carnivorous fangs to emerge as a truly cynical and subversive work.  THANK-YOU FOR SMOKING roared like a lion; AMERICAN DREAMZ barely whimpers like a kitten.

AMERICAN DREAMZ is one of 2006’s largest misfires and disappointments if one considers the talent behind the camera.  Weitz’s career has taken interesting turns over the last few years.  His film resume - as of late - has most certainly been a welcome surprise.  He was barely in his thirties when he co-wrote and directed the first AMERICAN PIE film, which by all standard definitions was a raunch-infested teen sex comedy.  Watching it you could tell that Weitz could have easily garnered a simple career of making more R-rated orgies of adolescent sexual angst, but even in AMERICAN PIE you could sense that he had loftier ambitions.  That film was clearly an adult oriented comedy that did not shy away from jokes involving bodily fluids and the incredible awkwardness of a young man's sexual awakening.  However, there was a sweetness and sentimentality with how Weitz handled the story and characters; we liked the personas in that film and felt for them.  AMERICAN PIE was a smart and witty gross-out comedy during a time when there were none to be had.

Weitz then went in an unconventional direction for his next films.  He would later go on to adapt a Nick Hornby novel and the result was 2002’s masterfully funny ABOUT A BOY, which I thought was one of the ten best films of that year (it also highlighted a career-high performance by the great Hugh Grant; he did a virtuoso job of doing what he does better than anyone – he played an unmitigated and hopelessly conceited SOB that you sort of grow to like, even when you know you’re not supposed to).  Weitz would follow up ABOUT A BOY with the equally charming and clever IN GOOD COMPANY from 2004.  That film starred a very effective Dennis Quaid as an aging ad executive that is faced with the unpleasant notion that his new boss is more than half his age and that he – in turn – is now dating his teen daughter.  That film had a level of thankless intelligence with its script.  It was smarter than the average film in the romantic comedy drama and rose above the more obvious conventions.  It  surprised me with its confidence and mature level of drollness.

Based on Weitz’s post-AMERICAN PIE films, I had very, very high hopes for AMERICAN DREAMZ.  Surely, a satire from Weitz that had a desire to tear holes in two things I don’t hold in high regard – reality based television (in its case, American Idol) and the current Bush Administration - could not possible go wrong.  Considering Weitz’s keen authority that he demonstrated with his past two films, AMERICAN DREAMZ had the potential to be yet another well-groomed and shrewdly mounted comedy on his resume.  Alas, the film lacks the freshness and hearty laughs that Weitz’s other past films successfully generated.  On top of that, AMERICAN DREAMZ is kind of like an American pie that was made with far too many ingredients.  At times, it seems assembled with too many disparaging and conflicting elements.  It lacks focus, attention, and care.

AMERICAN DREAMZ is not funny enough to be a worthy comedy; the laughs come here and there, but are desperately too few and far between and emerge more as pitiful giggles than anything else.  Secondly, the film lacks a much needed toughness and sardonic edge.  Satires need to be utterly ingenuous and made with a real ruthlessness and a genuine disregard for responsibility.  AMERICAN DREAMZ is far too zany and slapstick in some areas to be taken even remotely as a smoldering work of acerbic energy.  The film has some easy targets and instead of dealing with them with a venomous and devious punch, it goes easy on them.  This film sort of plays an ultimate con game with the audience – it makes you think that it's mercilessly attacking its prey, but all it's doing is flying around aimlessly from one episode to another with the perseverance to not strike hard for fear of offending anyone’s sensibilities.  Paradoxically, AMERICAN DREAMZ is a PC-satire – if one could ever exist.  It never has a contemptible bone in its body.  It does not cold-bloodedly mock and scorn its targets; rather, it sugarcoats its political leanings to the point where I got a cavity just watching the film.

The film opens with a slimy TV producer named Martin Tweed (played by Hugh Grant in one of the few memorable performances in the film) who is planning another hit season of his "American Dreamz" - an obvious clone of "American Idol."  He’s an obvious Simon Cowell figure, with a  dagger for a tongue and a snappy business sense that is even more sharp.  When his girlfriend dumps him abruptly at the beginning of the film, Tweed is so filled with high self-worth and ambition that he feels more relieved than upset.  His show just achieved its highest ratings ever…he could care less if his trophy girlfriend goes “by-bye.”

Tweed has auspicious aims for the next new season.  Not only does he hate people who make fools of themselves, he wants them with a passion to be on his show.  He yearns for “faces” and “characters” that will get the all-mighty ratings boost.  In short, he wants an Arab that loves the theatre, a Hasidic Jew that digs gangster rap, and a ditzy blond with a heart of gold.  Enter Sally Kendoo (the very good Mandy Moore) as the blond, Adam Busch as the rapper, and Sam Golzari as Omar the Arab.  The three will form the ultimate final three contestants for Tweed’s ratings booster.  Out of all of them, Tweed likes Sally the most.  Why?  Maybe because he sees her true, hidden motives to do anything and walk over anyone to reach the top.  She is a cold and detached reflection of himself.  She’s a “bitch” by his definition and the bastard in him loves her for it.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to US President Bush…er…I mean…Stanton (the horribly miscast Dennis Quaid) who has just secured another four more years in office.  He then reaches an epiphany – he wants to start reading the newspapers!  He likes them and finds a wealth of information that he never came across before in intelligence reports (“Did you know that there are three kinds of Iraqistans,” he amusingly asks an aid at one point).  He worships the papers so much that he locks himself away in his office for weeks, often at the concern of his Chief of Staff (played by Willem Dafoe, who gives a not-so-subtle riff on Dick Cheney).  The First Lady (the wasted Marcia Gay Harden) also worries about her husband.  She also acts as his intellectual counsel, explaining stuff to him he does not understand. 

Eventually, the Prez realizes the errors of his ways and emerges in the public eye once again.  His Chief of Staff then miraculously decides to put him on as a guest-judge on American Dreamz to help bolster his image and destroy what’s left of his persona as a hopeless reclusive.  Stanton begrudgingly agrees and even decides to go on to the show on Tweed’s demands and terms.  Meanwhile, Tweed does his own scheming with the contestants.  While he does this, the contestants get ready for the final showdown.  Sally sure plays the part of the ditzy, dumb blond with corn-blond locks, but she has a fierce determination that may have been nurtured by her mother (Jennifer Coolidge) and her superagent (the funny Seth Meyers).  At one point she wants to dump her simpleton boyfriend (the goofy Chris Klein), but when the agent finds out that he just returned from a tour in Iraq with a war wound, he tells her to take him back for sympathy votes.  While she’s doing this, Omar's "superiors" have forced him into a deadly game.  They want him to make it to the final three so he can get close to the President and blow him up, making him a martyr in their “holy war” against America.

AMERICAN DREAMZ – as far as satires go – is a completely cobbled together mess.  The film tries to be too many things at the same time and this results in a film that lacks a consistent tone and spirit.  Weitz tries to balance both political and social satire together with broad, farcical comedy and characters that are inconsistently solidly grounded and undamagingly buffoonish.  Both the Tweed and Sally characters are played fairly straight, which allows the film's truly funny and ironically mordant moments to shine through. 

Omar also seems to play straight man to the Three Stooges antics of his jihad brothers who coax him into his dangerous mission.  We have a would-be hilarious moment where we see Omar and many others in a terrorist training facility that is being filmed by movie cameras where he bumbles around the obstacle course and fails miserably.  Perhaps these scenes (and the rest with Omar) are not moments of high hilarity because he seems like a happy-go-lucky terrorist.  A funnier (and decidedly more polarizing and darkly contemptuous) approach would have been to make Omar a real zealot that just happens to have singing skills and who just happens to want to kill the President.  In this way, I think the film’s satire would sting and burn a hell of a lot more.

The President himself is such a clown figure that you feel more sympathy for him than you do any amount of humorous contempt.  Quaid is kind of all-wrong here as he desperately tries to play up sentiment at one time with a one-note caricature at other moments.  He does an “okay” Bush impersonation, but he seems lost in this film in scenes of cartoonishly unfocused satire. 

I remember the great performance by Peter Sellers as the President in Kubrick’s DOCTOR STRANGELOVE where he let the laughs generate from his portrayal of the Commander and Chief that walked a taut balancing act between moderation and overacting.  Maybe Quaid is an improper fit here because he does not have a strong command of comic timing.  Playing the President as a silly boob figure seems kind of too lazy.  This character could have generated stronger and more persistent chuckles.  Unfortunately, there is not one to be had here with Quaid at the helm.

AMERICAN DREAMZ does have a few noteworthy qualities.  Grant, as mentioned, is always a treat to behold when he has his chance to play roles that relish in their cheeky penchant for being unscrupulous A-holes.  Grant – no matter how good the film is – can play these types of roles perfectly in his sleep.  And then there is the feisty and charming Mandy Moore who wonderfully immerses herself in her character.  She puts up a false façade of unintelligible excitement and drive, but she truly is a young woman with a cast-iron will and a shrewd concept of what will get her far.  On these few levels, AMERICAN DREAMZ could have just been about those two characters.  However, two solid performances are not enough to save this confused film.

Unfortunately, AMERICAN DREAMZ is one of the more painfully shallow and inert satires to emerge in quite some time.  It lacks a truly offensive and gloomy sense of insubordinate laughs and instead pummels its audience into sheer complacency.  At face value, a film that involves the US President, an American Idol-inspired TV show, and suicide bomber-contestants could have made for a superbly macabre work of outrageous spirit that took no prisoners.  Yet, director Weitz – who is usually an assured and dependable voice in the movies lately – commits cinematic suicide in the sense that he lets his satire degenerate into a witless and remarkably unfunny lampoon that is simply too broad for its own good.  As a dumb comedy (which it more often reflects) AMERICAN DREAMZ garners a few laughs here and there.  As a daring satire (which is what I think it was supposed to be) the film is simply not as savage and mean as it should have been.  It’s all bark and no bite whatsoever, a disastrous trait for any film in this genre.  I am sure that Simon Cowell would agree.

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