April 19, 2006
The Good The Bad The Ugly
In Paul Weitz's democracy, everyone's a winner. His last film, In Good Company (2004), showcased the unintended social benefits of massive corporate mergers. (In a nutshell: They suck if you're one of the people getting fired, but if you stay on staff you can make new friends.) Now comes American Dreamz, a misbegotten satire that suggests the Taliban might not hate us so much if only we could export a few show tunes.
It's a premise that definitely could work — if the movie had been made by radical Muslims. But there's a genuine arrogance in Weitz's presumption to understand those who view America as a source of the world's evil. American Dreamz seeks to rationalize the mounting absurdity of American political culture. In doing so, it trivializes only war, politics, faith, fanaticism, heroism, ambition, and possibly even the form of satire itself. Satire exaggerates society into a searing vision; American Dreamz takes recent American history and softens it to a sitcom palatability.
Of course, any movie positing "American Idol" as the pinnacle of the American dream is seriously wobbly from the start. American Dreamz revolves around an "American Idol"–modeled television show on which contestants sing their hearts out in pursuit of fame. The show's host, Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant), is a self-professed cheat with no qualms about rigging the results, even "helping along" less talented contestants who he knows will lose the final, audience-voted round, thus ensuring that his favorite candidate will win. (The advertising for the film cites the dubious statistic claiming that more people vote for "American Idol" finalists than voted in the 2004 election.)
Tweed's contestants are no less venal. A blithely unselfconscious Mandy Moore plays Sally Kendoo (get it — "can do"?), a small-town girl ready to affect any pose necessary for her to win the show, even if it means listening to her agent and exploiting her lovestruck veteran boyfriend, William Williams (Chris Klein), for sentimental value. In a brief, disingenuous interlude, William is shown getting shoulder-wounded in some Disneyland version of Iraq.
Meanwhile, Sally's competition, Omer (Sam Golzari), has been sent to California to await orders from a sleeper cell. In the interim, he finds that he likes his cousin's in-home dance studio, and uses his vacation time to exercise his affinity for Guys and Dolls and Grease. One of the movie's most reckless ideas is showing the sleeper cell members enjoying a Jacuzzi; the assumption that terrorists view America as some sort of guilty pleasure severely underestimates the power of ideology. Nor does it seem likely that Omer's friends in Afghanistan could or would watch him perform on American Dreamz.
Unifying his America in an all-embracing mire, Weitz envisions a Bush-like president (Dennis Quaid) cast into an unexpected funk by his recent electoral victory. He's just learned that Iraq has an ethnically diverse — and highly volatile — population; he'd read the papers more often, if only his chief of staff (Willem Dafoe, playing a combination of Cheney and Karl Rove) would let him. President Stanton is a nice guy, it seems, but it's not in America's interest to know that. After a spell of seclusion drags his poll numbers down, Stanton is prodded to bolster his image, albeit through the unconventional method of guest-hosting on Tweed's show.
Now, Bush may be fantastically blunder-prone, but it's impossible to believe (as Weitz seems to) that he's a closet liberal duped by the Republican party's neoconservative wing. If anything, the last five years have borne out that — however preposterously — Bush thinks he's on a divinely mandated mission to democratize the world. In a bizarre wish-fulfillment fantasy, Weitz has President Stanton issue an equivocating statement regarding the possibility of peace in the Middle East; the real Bush, even without a teleprompter, never strikes that tone of doubt.
American Dreamz is nearly devoid of laughs. Even the usually dependable Hugh Grant — who somehow inflated parts of Love Actually — here succumbs to his character's nastiness. If there is a coherent message in the film, it's that capitalism is both the goal and the poison of all American desires, as demonstrated by a scene where Dafoe and Grant haggle over the number of commercials that will air during the president's episode. We're all just hopeless dreamers, Weitz suggests, struggling to be ourselves in a world too crazy to permit that objective.
It would be nice if it were really that simple.