The last movie I saw at SXSW was also the most commercial film I saw, the film that will likely get the widest release: American Dreamz, which was written and directed by Paul Weitz. Weitz, who attended the festival's closing-night screening with actors Dennis Quaid and Sam Golzari, also wrote and directed In Good Company (which also starred Quaid) and co-directed American Pie and About a Boy. American Dreamz is Weitz's first foray into political comedy. I think he should have stuck with teenage sex comedies and Nick Hornby adaptations.
After the screening, Weitz explained that he got the idea for the film after watching TV footage of American Idol at the same time as the war in Iraq. I feel that American Idol does not mix well with U.S. foreign politics. It's like that time in college when I decided to mix orange juice and Jack Daniels. Admittedly, that was all we had left at the party and my judgment was also rather impaired, excuses that won't work nearly as well for the American Dreamz filmmakers. Let's hope they don't suffer from their unfortunate mix the same way I did with mine.
American Dreamz focuses on several related stories. Hugh Grant plays Tweedy, the Simon Cowell-esque producer/host of the Idol-esque show American Dreamz. He decides to boost ratings by finding some novelty contestants: one Jewish, one Middle Eastern. Omer (Sam Golzari), the Middle Eastern contestant turns out to be—you'll never believe this—a former terrorist. Meanwhile, WASP-y contestant Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore) schemes to win by exploiting her relationship with a veteran of the Iraqi war (Chris Klein).
Somehow, the President of the United States (Dennis Quaid, obviously lampooning our current Commander-in-Chief) gets involved in all of this—his ratings are down, so his chief of staff (Willem Dafoe) convinces him to appear as a judge on American Dreamz to boost his popularity. Meanwhile, the First Lady (Marcia Gay Harden, who looks frighteningly like Laura Bush) tries to persuade him to take "happy pills." Once word gets out that the President is judging the TV show, you can imagine what Omer's terrorist acquaintances have planned.
I've enjoyed political-themed comedies before, from The President's Analyst to Dick. But the politics in this movie ring false. After the SXSW screening, Weitz admitted that the term "satire" is probably giving American Dreamz "more credit than it's due." He's right: American Dreamz barely counts as a political comedy, much less a satire.
Conservatives may deride American Dreamz for being too liberal, especially considering the cheap, easy cracks about the President. However, these cutesy-poo jokes are too shallow to be true political satire. Ha ha, let's poke fun at the President's religious ties by playing "Jesus Loves the Little Children" in the background. And let's make him not very bright! Oooh, and wouldn't it be hilarious to add some sly references to his alcoholic past? I'm not fond of the current U.S. President or his political party and I still didn't find these jokes one bit funny.
I can't imagine most American Idol fans will like this movie, either, because they're depicted as lemmings with no taste. When a nasty accident occurs during the show, the TV screen cuts quickly to a "let's vote!" signal and despite the horror of what they've just witnessed, the American Dreamz viewers all lunge for their phones to vote.
American Dreamz relies heavily on stereotypes for humor. The music on the TV show is atrociously gooey and overdone. Mandy Moore's Eve Harrington-esque character lives in a nicely decorated Midwestern home, but her agent refers to her as "white trash" and her first song on the TV show is a country ballad about an alcoholic mommy. The movie also milks a lot of humor out of the Middle Eastern characters singing show tunes and learning disco moves, and about how funny Middle Eastern terrorists can be. I realize that Omer is a spoof of Idol contestant William Hung, and that the Jewish contestant is stereotyped as strongly as the Middle Eastern contestant. However, the Middle Eastern terrorist subplot still seemed distasteful.
You could argue that the movie is an equal-opportunity offender, but that is an insult to movies that genuinely offend many types of people (often while simultaneously making them laugh), like Bad Santa or The Loved One. American Dreamz is never that edgy or wicked; it's more like an equal-opportunity snarker.
Hugh Grant was my favorite part of the film. I love watching Grant playing a complete bastard (Bridget Jones's Diary), or even a semi-bastard (About a Boy). I am so pleased that he's found this niche, which works far better for him than his wryly sweet romantic-comedy leads. If the entire movie had been about Grant's nasty character and the political subplot had been removed entirely, I would have enjoyed the film so much more.
Willem Dafoe was the only aspect of the political subplot that I liked. He's obviously supposed to be Dick Cheney-esque, both in appearance and in his habit of manipulating the President like a little puppet. Somehow, he makes this role his own and is charmingly sneaky as so many Dafoe characters are, rather than annoying and stupid. At the SXSW screening, the entire audience hooted and applauded the moment he appeared onscreen.
I think it might be possible to write a sharp satire about American Idol and American politics. I remember hearing once that the "American Idol" voting system is more secure than the voting machines we use in this country. But American Dreamz isn't intelligent enough to draw those kinds of parallels, relying instead on too-obvious gags. Did Weitz think that U.S. audiences would be too dumb to appreciate satire? The box-office numbers will show whether that's true; I sincerely hope not.