American Dreamz (2006) / Comedy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for language and sexual references
Running Time: 107 min.
Cast: Hugh Grant, Dennis Quaid, Mandy Moore, Sam Golzari, WIllem Dafoe, Chris Klein, Jennifer Coolidge, Tony Yalda, Marcia Gay Harden, Seth Meyers, Bernard White, Adam Busch, John Cho, Judy Greer, Noureen DeWulf, Carmen Electra (cameo)
Director: Paul Weitz
Screenplay: Paul Weitz
Writer-director Paul Weitz's (In Good Company, About a Boy) farcical look at American pop culture's obsession with the rabid hit television show "American Idol" and its simple-minded taste for politics certainly is ambitious, and even engaging. It's also a bit too broad and scattershot to make for a truly effective satire, enjoying toying around with its prey with no intention of striking anything resembling a lethal blow. It is funny and lively, though, even if it isn't particularly focused, with some very good performances by a varied, likeable cast. If only Weitz had borrowed more from the Network branch of political culture satires instead of the rather toothless modern one that Mean Girls and Saved! stem from, perhaps we'd have one of the better movies of 2006. Alas, Weitz sympathizes too much with his target, making everyone in his film, from the Bush-like President to the Al Qaeda-like terrorists oddly likeable and endearing.
In this fantasy world, not too unlike our own, there is a television show that has captured the attention of the nation, and the world, promising to fulfill the ultimate dream for one lucky amateur performer into becoming the next pop superstar -- "American Dreamz". The brainchild behind the show is a 40-something Brit (modeled after Idol's Simon Cowell) named Martin Tweed (Grant, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason), who is, oddly enough, neither American nor talented, only having the ability to be provocatively insulting without fear of reproach. As popular as the show is, Tweed is hungry for more, so when the newly re-elected President Staton (Quaid, Flight of the Pheonix) decides he would like to be a guest judge on the show's season finale to boost his popularity, Martin works out a deal that should prove successful for everyone involved.
Meanwhile, there is still a show to run, although this is a talent show that doesn't necessarily praise talent so much as exploit the people that would do anything to be the next hot superstar. Due to the conflict in the Middle East, Tweed makes his show topical this year, pitting an Arab named Omer (Golzari ) against a Jew named Sholem Glickstein (Busch), while the white trash vixen du jour is Sally Kendoo (Moore, Chasing Liberty), a shallow but talented singer willing to do just about anything to win the show, including reaping popularity through a sham interest in her sappy boyfriend William (Klein, Just Friends), an American soldier injured in the Iraq conflict.
Weitz does manage to provide enough laughs, and a core intelligence, to justify a viewing for those looking for a cheeky, irreverent romp. Ultimately, how much humor you extract from American Dreamz will largely be dependent on your familiarity with the subject matter, particularly in "American Idol", with its emphasis on glitz and drama over actual talent, as well as in the American public's perception of Bush as an intentionally uninformed world leader that makes speeches and engages in policy solely on the advice of his puppeteer handlers, represented here by a very Cheney-like Chief of Staff, played brilliantly by Willem Dafoe (xXx 2, The Life Aquatic).
While American Dreamz does base most of its satire on real-world people and events, ultimately, it is too much of a fantasy to really make more than a passing connection to the actual counterparts, effectively diffusing the incendiary qualities that really would have made a lasting impression. Ironically, by being a personality-driven showcase of colorful talent and superficial charm, American Dreamz will probably be embraced by the very people that love the pop culture phenomena that Weitz pokes fun at -- "American Idol" fanatics and unapologetic Bush supporters -- ready-made consumers who will heartily buy anything dished up in an attractive yet simple package.
As a straight comedy, this works better than it does as a satire, although Weitz very clearly wants it to be the latter. In the end, American Dreamz is like the snake that eats its own tail, a victim of its own watered-down tendency to strive for a glossy commercial product to draw the appeal of the masses, as guilty of being vacuous as the targets it sets in its sights. Like "Idol", Dreamz is little more than easily digestible entertainment for a fast-food culture; enjoyable for the moment, but disposable once you've had your fill.
©2006 Vince Leo