Directed By Paul Weitz
Based on the evidence of the last couple months, American filmmakers have developed a finely tuned ear for bad satire. Add American Dreamz to a list including CSA: The Confederate States of America and Thank You for Smoking, not to mention countless others I have deftly managed to avoid. While each of these films fail in their own way, they all share a consistently soft-headed imprecision, a lackadaisical approach to their targets that undercuts the unique force of satire as a persuasive tool. Worse than this, a poorly articulated satire like American Dreamz can begin to play like loving parody, thus making one unintentionally sympathetic to its subjects. To be blunt: I’ll never forgive this movie for making both Dubya and Kelly Clarkson seem lovable.
Of course, to many in the United States they are lovable, but such a reaction to their fictional counterparts reflects a failure of the film’s satirical mode. American Dreamz parallels two basic storylines: President Joe Staton (a criminally underused Dennis Quaid) awakes the day after re-election and, undergoing a vague moral crisis, suddenly desires to read a paper; meanwhile Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant, badly aping Simon Cowell) searches for a new group of contestants for his top-rated talent show, American Dreamz. Ratings drive both stories as Tweed pits calculating sweetheart Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore) against showtune- loving, rejected Iraqi terrorist Omer (Sam Golzari) while the Staton’s handlers (including a Rove-esque Willem Dafoe) try to resolve a public relations nightmare by having the commander-in-chief guest judge the American Dreamz finale.
The sitcom-plot contrivance of all this might have worked if only writer-director Paul Weitz had drawn his characters with skill or care. It’s the tone-deaf flipside to Weitz’s own In Good Company. Whereas that film’s precise characterizations and melancholic charm made its simplistic points about age and modern work palatable, this film’s take on reality TV culture and our horrific foreign policy never gets fleshed out with believable human beings. Everyone’s an archetype and only Kendoo, whose Machiavellian media savvy can’t jade her radiance, approaches something like a complex person.
American Dreamz has only two worthwhile scenes, both conversations between Kendoo and Tweed, who develop a common ground of respect, admiration and attraction that transcends their otherwise underdeveloped characters (they’d be perfect for a soulless Lost In Translation remake). Golzari’s Omer, Chris Klein’s exploited soldier boyfriend and all the other characters come across as merely insulting, reflecting a tone of Democratic Party condescension that plagues the whole undertaking. And Quaid’s Staton is the film’s biggest wasted opportunity: He is basically a cardboard stand-in for Bush, his moral crisis never gels, and the film doesn’t even bother to explore the notion that Bush’s ignorance is central to his popularity. For a better version of this same idea, rent Warren Beatty’s ever-relevant Bulworth, still the model for messy and provocative political satire. But if you do see the sluggish, idiotic American Dreamz, listen closely for the sound of Jonathan Swift rolling over in his grave once again.