The commercial I saw for American Dreamz the other night introduces us to the main characters: The President; The Chief of Staff; The Wanna-Be Star; The Boyfriend; The TV Host; The Stage Mother. Unfortunately, those descriptions are about as deep as the character development gets in this tepid comedy from Paul Weitz, the director of About a Boy, In Good Company and American Pie. While no one gets it on with a hot dessert in Weitz's newest film, neither does the comedy ever get more than lukewarm. I suspect this is one of those movie ideas that sounded a whole lot better in the pitch meeting than when it ended up in theaters.
Part of the problem is that the film doesn't really seem to know what it wants to be when it grows up. We have a wanna-be political satire about a dumb Southern president (gee, wonder who Dennis Quaid is supposed to be lampooning here?) who wakes up the day after his reelection and decides to start thinking. His sedated First Lady is played by Marcia Gay Harden (so obviously Laura Bush she might as well be wearing a "Hello My Name Is ..." tag), and Willem Dafoe, doing his best Dick Cheney impression, is the controlling Chief of Staff.
Then we have the would-be social satire of a reality TV show where wanna-be pop tarts perform for the votes of audience members, and things aren't always what they seem on camera. Weitz works again with Hugh Grant, his star from About A Boy, who plays Martin Tweed, the snarky, British, malcontented host of the show. If you're going to cast anyone in the part of a Simon Cowell-esque TV host, you couldn't do much better than to cast Grant in the part. Likewise, Mandy Moore (playing against type again, as she did in Saved!, by playing a nice girl who's really not-so-nice beneath the surface) is an excellent choice to play Sally Kendoo, who is so desperate to leave behind her "white trash rural Ohio roots" she would probably sacrifice her own mother (Jennifer Coolidge) for success.
Finding a way to fit these two pieces logically together would be a stretch by itself (and Weitz stretches the whole "suspension of disbelief" concept to the limit more than once in this film) without the third chunk he tosses in -- a subplot about Middle Eastern terrorists, one of them a "sleeper" in Los Angeles who ends up competing on American Dreamz, the reality show (that's "dreams with a 'z'," as the show's nauseatingly annoying theme song reminds us over and over). Now, maybe I'm the only person who will have an issue with this, but in the current political environment, with US troops still occupying Iraq, our President eyeballing Iran like a tasty snack on the buffet table, and the wound of 9/11 still fresh on American minds (as evidenced by the chilly reception of the United 93 trailer), Middle Eastern terrorists might not be the best angle for a comedy. You could maybe get away with it in a really well done political satire like Thank You For Smoking, but American Dreamz never rises to that level of intelligence.
The terrorist characters are so banal as to be almost minstrel-esque; they were just insulting. I know, I know, making caricatures of one's political enemies is as old as the hills. It's just not funny here. Basic subplot: Omer (Sam Golzari), a bumbling, showtune-loving, wanna-be terrorist out to avenge the death of his mother by American bombs, is sent from terrorist training camp to be a "sleeper" in Southern California. Omer is to live with his unsuspecting aunt and uncle until called upon to do his duty for the jihad. So, like a Middle Eastern Fresh Prince, Omer heads off to Bel-Air (or whatever spendy neighborhood the family lives in) to take up residence in a posh mansion with his wealthy aunt and uncle and very Americanized cousins, Iqbal (Tony Yalda) and Shazzy (Noureen DeWulf).
Trying to turn these discrete pieces into a unified whole is a bit like throwing appetizer, main dish and dessert into a blender -- it may save time, but the end result is an unappetizing mess. The concept of mimicking the current political leadership is something that can, on occasion, work quite well for a short Saturday Night Live sketch, but trying to stretch it out into a movie just doesn't work well here. Dennis Quaid is obviously trying to be George W. Bush, it's just painful to watch him play dumb and stretch his features into comical, Bush-like expressions. Harden lends some style to the window-dressing role of the First Lady, but doesn't have a whole lot to work with (I'm guessing calling Quaid "Poopy" probably didn't stretch her acting chops too much). Dafoe, who is one of my favorite actors, does a decent enough job as the puppeteer behind the Presidency, but the idea simply isn't remotely original. Add to this the considerable stupidity of the idea of the President of the United States judging the finale of a reality television show to up his ratings, and you've worked your way pretty high up the "this just isn't a good idea" meter.
Weitz could've taken the "American Dreamz" piece of the storyline, gone down the mockumentary path so adroitly blazed by Christopher Guest, and ended up with a workable film. He has some potentially interesting characters in Martin Tweed, the uber-successful-but-eternally-unloved celebrity, and Sally Kendoo, the cutthroat America's sweetheart, but never develops them enough to really get us interested in the fate of either. Weitz tries to take a dip in the less shallow end of the character-development pool with the relationship between Tweed and Kendoo, but even there he really only wades knee-deep.
Chris Klein, as Sally's unbelievably good-hearted, blindly stupid boyfriend/ex-boyfriend/reunited war-hero-boyfriend delivers his role in an incessantly wooden-but-earnest style that made me think he's been studying up on early Keanu Reeves films; I'm not sure if he was intentionally mocking Reeves or just doing a damn good impression of the actor at his worst (and yes, Keanu fans -- before you collectively leap down my throat yet again -- Reeves is capable of doing some decent acting, but like the little girl who had a little curl, when he is bad, he is horrid). Seriously, every time Klein was on screen, I thought of how much better that part would have been in the hands of Lou Taylor Pucci or Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
If Weitz had made a film just focusing on the reality show, minus the presidential nonsense, he might have actually had a decent comedy on his hands. Heck, he could have even left the Omer character in, and just made him a poor relative coming to America to live with rich relatives instead of a terrorist. Omer's family could have been the setting for some more biting social commentary than what we get here, which is mostly Omer's bewilderment at his cousins' desire to shop at the mall all the time. The real jewel of Omer's family is his cousin Iqbal, a flamingly gay singer and dancer who wants desperately to be famous; he has a deliciously gaudy rehearsal space set up in the basement, complete with sound system, mirror ball and lights, and has submitted a video to American Dreamz, hoping to be a contestant. One suspects after watching his hilarious performance of "Superfreak" that Iqbal's best chance of success would be the drag queen scene, where "jazz hands" and lots of hip swiveling are appreciated.
If American Dreamz had tried to do any one of those things, it might have worked. As it is, what we have is a film that's not funny enough to rightly be called a farce, and certainly not intelligent enough to be called satire. American Dreamz aims for the scattershot, but misses the mark. The older woman in the elevator with me on the way out of the theater after the free screening (where the film received a decidedly lukewarm reception from the packed house) summed it up thusly: "Well, that's two hours of my life I'll never get back. We should've shelled out the 20 bucks to go see Kinky Boots instead."Jette saw American Dreamz at SXSW. Her review is here.