Directed by: Paul Weitz
Starring: Hugh Grant, Dennis Quaid, Mandy Moore, Sam Golzari, Chris Klein, Willem Dafoe
Both disappointing and not, American Dreamz confirms the suspicion that Paul Weitz is just too much a softie to be a wholly effective satirist. Perhaps that's why Weitz has himself claimed that his new film isn't a satire, but a comedy.
The truth is that it's more of a satirical farce than anything else -- and the two forms might fuse into a workable whole, but not in the hands of a filmmaker who wants to like his characters as badly as Weitz does. Satire can survive much, but one thing it can't survive is a soft-center.
The premise -- indeed, the convoluted and complex interwoven storylines -- is a good one in its high-concept way. It's obviously written with its stars in mind, as a reflection of current times -- taking aim at Simon Cowell and American Idol, George W. Bush, terrorism and pop culture in general.
This is a heady mix, but it sounds funnier than it plays, because it needed a Billy Wilder level of cynicism, and Weitz doesn't have anything like that. He aims for big laughs, but mostly what he achieves is a fairly constant level of mild amusement. There's certainly an undercurrent of spot-on satire to the film because the targets are just too big to miss. And the manner in which Weitz manages to intermingle this improbable mix of characters is certainly admirable.
Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant) hosts the popular TV show American Dreamz, but he wants more -- and he's bored with the sameness of his program. At bottom, he wants an out-and-out freak show to balance the relative normalcy of the most promising newcomer, Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore). Meanwhile, President Joseph Staton (Dennis Quaid) has just been re-elected, but is overcome with a malaise that causes him to decide to read the newspaper rather than take his advisers' usual pre-digested news. This awakens in him a desire to really understand the world around him -- much to the mounting horror of his chief of staff (Willem Dafoe).
While this is going on, Omer (Sam Golzari) is in the Middle East training, ineptly, to be a terrorist. His heart isn't really in it, and when he's discovered singing and dancing to "One" from A Chorus Line, he's packed off to Orange County, Calif., as a "sleeper cell" -- one that no one has any intention of activating. That changes when he's accidentally picked to be on American Dreamz, in light of the fact that Staton's chief of staff has booked the president on the show as a celebrity judge. If Omer can make it to the final judging, he can get close enough to blow both himself and the commander in chief to smithereens. And that's only the major plotline.
Some of the best things in the film -- notably the duplicitous depths to which Sally will sink to attain stardom -- are almost side issues. Some of it works, some of it doesn't. The actors all shine, though Tweed is the kind of character Grant could play in his sleep. Quaid makes an amusing bungler out of Staton, but the idea that he'd be a swell guy if he only got away from his handlers is where the film goes softest, and it doesn't ring true.
The big winner, though, is Mandy Moore, who has the calculating ultra-bitch down -- right to the ghastly orange tanning-bed skin tones. She takes her character well beyond a bland pop singer with a movie career.
The real target of the film, however, isn't American Idol or Bush. It's more the public that helped create them, and even though the film -- apart from a somewhat surprising climax -- is not the scathing satire it might have been, this is the one area that Weitz doesn't sugar-coat. He never lets the audience off the hook, constantly reminding us that we -- at least in a broad sense -- have bought into this pre-packaged sub-entertainment and the ever-lessening dividing line between show-biz hype and politics. For this and for the times, the film actually rings the gong, it's worth a look, though that look may just show you a mirror. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some sexual references.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke