American Dreamz (2006)Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some sexual references.
Starring Hugh Grant, Dennis Quaid, Mandy Moore, Marcia Gay Harden, Chris Klein, Jennifer Coolidge, Willem Dafoe.
LVJeff's Rating: 7/10
Photo ©Univeral Pictures. All rights reserved.
Dreamerz vs. Puppeteerz
Even though it features an international plot -- sort of -- American Dreamz is rooted firmly in the brand of ideology reflected in its title. In this movie's world, sincere people exist with sincere dreams, and they deserve to be realized, but are often obstructed or outright destroyed by the forces who prey upon the idealists. America is the land of opportunity, provided you can avoid the landmines.
This is admittedly a weird movie -- in the effort to show the modern relevance of such a sympathetic point of view, it launches into a broad parody of seemingly random large targets, namely the singing competition TV show American Idol and no less than the U.S. presidency, while throwing in Middle Eastern terrorists for good measure. Notice I said "parody," not "satire." The subjects themselves are held up only to the most lighthearted of scrutinies, while the bigger concern is over the tug-of-war between the dreamers and the puppeteers who parasitize them. The setting could've been anything, really; the surprising thing about this movie is how little one thinks about either American Idol or international politics afterwards.
While this could be read as a weakness, I see it more simply as awkwardness. If the comedy didn't have its fair share of moments, it could easily be seen as failure; fortunately, a handful of game actors doing their caricaturing best saves it as something that's mostly enjoyable. The sides are clearly drawn, but with a few surprises in mind. Hugh Grant is the Simon Cowell/Ryan Seacrest combo Martin Tweed, the disreputable host and sole judge of the show "American Dreamz." Equally as manipulative is blonde, "white trash" contestant Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore, getting good at this lampooning business). Sam Golzari is the sweet, sincere Omer, Sally's rival contestant whose fate he allows everyone from his terrorist leaders to his Orange County relatives to control. And, most interestingly, Dennis Quaid is President Staton, who turns his initially George W. Bush-like buffoon into a sympathetic, insecure nice guy, ruled over by his Chief of Staff (Willem Dafoe).
Director Paul Weitz, by now proficient in comedy with About a Boy and American Pie under his belt, gets in quite a few zingers at both the White House and everyone's favorite singing contest (Idol fans should get a kick out of the first-round contestants montage, featuring, among others, a long-haired Trey Parker singing, "I'm a rock-rock-rockin' man!"). However, he concentrates on the comedic conflicts where sincerity is continually undercut by immoral motives. Martin and Sally develop an attraction (i.e., an actual chance to display a human side), for instance, but continue to keep up facades for the sake of their reputations and careers. Most victimized, perhaps, is Sally's boyfriend William (Chris Klein), whose extremely minor stint with the U.S. Army in Iraq is exploited, turning him into the sympathetic "war veteran," oblivious to how he's being used as long as he believes he will be with Sally.
Perhaps the loopy insularity of this comic world, where the dreamers are very easy to spot and get behind, is meant to be contrasted starkly with the sobriety of the real-life counterparts. Savvy viewers of American Idol should be aware enough by now to cheer for their favorites through a healthy screen of cynicism, understanding those behind-the-curtains manipulations of both the producers and the contestants (are they really as sweet and innocent as they're presented to be? How many back-story scandals have already threatened to surface from this show?). And how people view their government doesn't even need to repeated here (can we really imagine a sincere politician?).
In the age of irony, are we snuffing out real-world dreamers? But the nagging suspicion is that this might be applying too much work to uncover more relevance in the movie than it may deserve or want. With its broad, quilt-like scope, American Dreamz doesn't look to specifically criticize particular institutions; it just lampoons them. While displaying enough comic deftness to effectively bare the teeth that it surely has, it simply chooses not to bite anything.
©Jeffrey Chen, Apr. 17, 2006