American Dreamz (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Is it possible to satirize something that, in and of itself, often crosses the line into self-parody? That's a question that American Dreamz attempts to address. The objects of Paul Weitz's lampoon are two ripe ones: American Bush and American Idol. The problem is that the TV show lives its week-to-week life a hair's breadth from outright camp, and the Bush administration often seems more like a send-up of ruling the country than an actual government. Given these considerations, one has to acknowledge the difficulties facing writer/director Paul Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy). While he manages to land a few solid punchlines that result in decent laughs, the production as a whole comes across as a soft-sell that never delivers with the force it should.

One of my sources of dissatisfaction with recent satires is their unwillingness to go for the throat. Because they don't want to offend anyone, they stumble around trying to attack without being vicious. This is the approach used by American Dreamz, which pads its jabs at subject matters that could stand up to a lot more corrosive derision. The film is an exercise in compromise: lambasting American Idol without turning off the show's fans (who presumably will make up a significant portion of the audience), and taking genial potshots at President Bush that don't result in a Republican protest. The take-no-prisoners approach of Wag the Dog is sorely missed.

Another flaw is that the film arguably tries to do too many things. Satires about politics and the government could easily encompass the scope of an entire motion picture, as could a parody of reality shows in general and American Idol in particular. By cobbling both together into one movie, there's a sense that both lose out. And, although the diverse storylines are brought together at the end, they represent an uneasy marriage before that point.

The two-pronged story begins with would-be contestants of the hit TV series American Dreamz getting the news that they will be featured on the new season. One of these is Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), a bubbly blonde who has all the makings of a star - she's pretty, lively, and can carry a tune. The show's producer/host/talent judge, Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant), is immediately captivated, seeing not only a potential pop star but a like-minded individual. Another contestant is Omar (Sam Golzari), a member of an Arab terrorist cell.

Meanwhile, President Staton (Dennis Quaid) begins his second term in office by reading a newspaper for the first time and questioning his policies. He goes into seclusion to catch up on current events and rumors of a nervous breakdown circulate. His popularity nosedives. Eager to repair his boss' image, Chief of Staff Sutter (Willem Dafoe) books the President as a guest judge on American Dreamz. When Omar's keepers find out about this, they order him to blow up himself and the President on live TV.

No one in this film tries to hide who their real-life counterparts are. Hugh Grant has Simon Cowell down to a (black) "T" (shirt), from his wardrobe to his stinging assessments of contestants' failures. Grant is one of those actors who can play nasty as effectively as nice, and this is one case in which he puts a strong emphasis on the former. Mandy Moore essays just about every blond American Idol contestant whose smile hides a "win at all costs" disposition. Dennis Quaid does his best George W. Bush imitation. It includes plenty of ridicule but is also oddly sympathetic. And Willem Dafoe has a nice turn as the Dick Chaney-inspired Chief of Staff, although (with apologies to the actor) a significant portion of the credit for this performance goes to the makeup staff.

The least effective aspect of American Dreamz is the time it spends with Omar and his wacky terrorist brethren. Aside from the first scene, which gives a glimpse into a terrorist training camp run by the Three Stooges, there's little to laugh about in this subplot. Irony may be clever or amusing, but it's rarely funny. This is the case with Omar's story: it's ironic that an undercover terrorist who can't sing or dance makes it to the finals of a TV talent contest, but it isn't funny.

Movies like this succeed or fail based on how frequently and loudly the jokes make viewers laugh. And, although American Dreamz has its moments, the humor is neither consistent nor inspired. I suspect devoted fans of American Idol will find more in-jokes than I did, but I'm not sure even those will be enough to tip the balance. This movie seems better suited as cable or video fare than for theatrical viewing. The comedy, while not invisible, is too limp to justify a full price admission ticket.

American Dreamz (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2006-04-21
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1