What if they threw a satire and no jokes came? This is the question American Dreamz answers in its interminable running time. Completely castrated and devoid of comedy, American Dreamz is what it looks like when a filmmaker runs out of nerve just before filming begins.
The movie barely even attempts to extend its comedy beyond its basic premise – a bumbling, not that bright Southern president suddenly begins reading the newspapers, something he never did. The world looks quite different in the papers then it does in his daily briefings, and he retreats into a weeks-long depression. The spineless press finally begin asking questions about the president’s whereabouts and his anxious chief of staff devises a plan to lure him out of the bedroom – guest judging the hit TV show American Dreamz, where people sing and compete to become the next big pop thing.
Meanwhile, Midwestern bitch queen Sally Kendoo is also angling to win American Dreamz. She feels held back by her square boyfriend and dumps him; depressed, he joins the Army, gets sent to Iraq and is immediately wounded. When he comes back an injured vet Kendoo and her agent realize that by getting back with him she can create the kind of backstory that will help her reach the final rounds of the show.
Meanwhile yet again, Omer is sent to the US by his Al Qaeda masters. He stays with his family in Beverly Hills – they have become completely secular to the point where the diva son spends his days in the basement rehearsing show tunes and dance moves so he can get on American Dreamz. It turns out that Omer is a natural, and by a fluke of the plot, he ends up on the show. Al Qaeda likes the idea – they order Omer to make it to the finals, when the President will be judging, and blow him up.
Writer/director Paul Weitz is on shaky ground from the start – American Idol and President Bush, his main targets, are pretty ridiculous on their own. It’s been noted ad nauseum all over the place that both of these subjects have long since slipped into self-parody long ago, but it’s worth repeating. When Weitz decided to tackle these subjects he set himself a challenge – he needed to bring an A game, with plenty of jokes and even more insight and critique. It turns out that the premise outlined above is the sum total of the film’s jokes and insight.
The one bright spot in the film is the cast. Weitz has proven himself to be maybe the premiere director working today when it comes to actors, and especially ensembles. He casts well and he gets often impeccable performances from people. In Dreamz Hugh Grant plays a perfect asshole, and it makes you all the sadder that his role isn’t that interesting. Same with Dennis Quaid, doing a surprisingly sympathetic Bush imitation – but that’s all the character has to him. I could go down the list – Willem Dafoe as the creepy Cheney look-alike chief of staff, Mandy Moore as the soulless Kendoo, Chris Klein as the clueless vet. But each character has the same problem in that there’s only so much of them on the page.
There are long stretches of American Dreamz where you can’t believe what you’re seeing, in the most bland way possible. The film is television sized; it feels dwarfish on the big screen. At least if the movie was filled with the usual type of inept comedy stylings – people running around and yelling and pratfalling and what have you – it would have been irritating. As it is, American Dreamz is barely there.
I had heard far in advance that the film didn’t work, but I was hoping that it didn’t work in an interesting way. I’m willing to forgive a lot of problems if a film is trying something different, or if it’s attempting to say something. American Dreamz isn’t doing either of those things. It’s so lacking in insight and meaning that it’s a film that couldn’t possibly offend anyone, and that’s the worst indictment of any film poking fun at current events. Was there ever a better concept for this film? Did Weitz have something more biting up his sleeve at some point? We may never know, but as it stands I’ve read issues of Cracked with more relevance, comedy and balls than this flaccid piece of crap.