American Dreamz

Reviewed By Collin Souter
Posted 04/21/06 14:59:50

"I highly recommend seeing it before you see United 93"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

There are so many ways Paul Weitz’s comedy American Dreamz could have gone wrong. The first thing it has going against it is that it comes from a major studio that doesn’t gravitate towards satire in the first place. Since part of the movie’s satirical vision involves our President, it wouldn’t be out of line to assume that it’s one-sided and that only Democrats would want to see it, which could have also worked against the movie. American Dreamz also skewers the #1 TV show in our country, American Idol, a move that could have resulted in easy targets for ridicule and one dimensional caricatures. It’s amazing to me how none of this ever became a problem.

American Dreamz, the first great comedy of the year, works effortlessly on so many levels that you can’t help but watch it with a big grin on your face. This shouldn’t be a big surprise, coming from the writer-director of About A Boy and In Good Company and co-writer/director of the first American Pie movie. Weitz is blessed with the same delicate touch necessary for great satire, humanistic comedy and unpredictability as Alexander Payne and the great Billy Wilder. Once again, Weitz somehow manages to strike the right cord and find a perfect balance with material that, in the hands of a lesser director, would have either gone off the deep end or played it too safe.

The movie has three or four or five storylines going on, all of which will inevitably collide and all of which center around America’s #1 TV show, “American Dreamz,” a show where anybody can sing a song and become a celebrity, provided they can get by unscathed by the show’s one and only acid-tongued judge, Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant). The movie’s opening bears a resemblance to Weitz’s In Good Company, in which a man has just achieved the greatest success of their career, only to be dumped by his significant other. Left with his heart in shambles and an alarming degree of self-loathing, Martin decides he wants to redeem his show and attempt something completely different.

Meanwhile in Ohio, a young barmaid named Sally Kendoo (Many Moore) has just auditioned for “American Dreamz” and has caught the eye of the show’s producers. Sally has everything: Good looks, a nice voice, wholesomeness and, most of all, “a story.” Her success leads her to dumping her boyfriend William (Chris Klein), which leads him to going off to war and coming home wounded, thus elevating her chances of stardom (because us Americans eat that shit up, you know). She has everything going for her, including bearing a striking resemblance to Martin Tweed’s ex girlfriend.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, a would-be terrorist named Omer (Sam Golzari) gets sent to America to await instructions on carrying out a destructive mission. He moves in with some well-to-do relatives, one of whom has dreams of his own of becoming a world-renowned star on “American Dreamz.” But Omer has a secret fondness for American showtunes, which he finds easier to express here in the States. A mix-up leads him to eventually being a contestant on the show, which his chiefs see as a great opportunity for him to carry out a terrorist attack.

Cut to The White House. President Staton (Dennis Quaid) has just won re-election, but has come down with depression after reading the newspaper for the first time in four years. When he doesn’t leave the bedroom for three weeks, his Chief of Staff (Willem Dafoe) decides it’s time to launch a media campaign to show the country that our President has not snapped his cap, but still possesses the ability to lead. The Chief of Staff’s most noble and cunning idea: Have the President be a guest judge on “American Dreamz,” an idea that seems a bit undignified even by Staton, whose wife (Marcia Gay Harden) does not protest the idea.

Again, so much could have gone wrong with this set-up, yet everything goes right. This is not a movie that hates its characters or has its own agenda. It doesn’t feel the need to take important figureheads or celebrities and put them in their place. It paints a sympathetic portrait of all its characters when it could have easily just made fun of them. The President, First Lady and Chief of Staff, though thinly masked representations of our current leaders, don’t come off as shallow, empty-headed SNL caricatures, but as brilliant comedy creations by the actors who clearly love the roles that have been handed to them. Quaid, Defoe and Harden play these roles with cleverness and understanding rather than with a sneer, a wink and utter contempt.

Weitz could also have made Sally Kendoo a thoroughly unlikable bimbo, but has instead given her a great deal of depth as the attraction between her and Martin makes more and more sense. Their relationship doesn’t become just a plot device to help the story go from A to B. It’s a relationship that works and could have been its own movie. Weitz knows how certain personality types gravitate toward another and how most relationships are based on deeply felt personal needs than on attraction for the sake of it. Within the absurdities, the story has a strong, human center. They become characters worth rooting for and against.

It helps that the movie has been perfectly cast. Marcia Gay Harden has played Laura Bush before in a stage piece written by playwright Tony Kuschner (Angels In America). She does not appear to be doing a mere impersonation. She inhabits the role as she would any other. Weitz also gets another great performance out of Hugh Grant by not letting him fall on his usual devices (blinking and stuttering). Chris Klein, who got dumped by Katie Holmes last year, seems to be getting a lot out of his system as the devoted on-and-off boyfriend of Sally. Sam Golzari gives a finely-tuned comedic performance as Omer, the reluctant terrorist and closet showman.

I was lucky enough to not have seen the trailer before seeing the movie, but having seen it I can understand why some react to it with great skepticism. American Dreamz has nothing that will get the PC police in an uproar, nor does it pander to Liberals. It makes fun of all of us while understanding why we are the way we are. Sure, we can laugh at the mediocre-to-awful contestants who parade themselves on American Idol week after week, but shouldn’t we also laugh at ourselves for making it the most popular TV show in America? American Dreamz has the good sense to hold up a mirror to ourselves, only instead of making us feel guilty and stupid, it makes us feel inclusive and in on the big joke.

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