"American Dreamz" is a wildly popular televised singing contest, and host Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant) is at his wit's end with it all. He wants more sparkle in the cast, and finds Ohio fame junkie Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore) has all the inspiration he needs to keep going. The show also happens upon Omer (Sam Golzari), an Iraqi visiting his relatives' California mansion, who has strict orders to suicide bomb the show when he makes the finals. Back in Washington, buffoonish President Stanton (Dennis Quaid) has just been reelected by a narrow margin and wants to learn more about the big world outside the White House, panicking his controlling Chief of Staff (Willem Dafoe).
"American Dreamz" furthers the anemic work "Thank You for Smoking" started this spring by poking fun at the screamingly obvious. "Dreamz" is designed as a wacky romp on American popular culture and Bush politics (think "Dr. Strangelove" for the MySpace crowd), but there's not an instant of the film that touches this intended profundity. This is mockery without bite, brains, or a decent sense of adventure.
Writer/director Paul Weitz ("American Pie," "In Good Company") has never been one to write genuinely subversive material, but good heavens the t-ball targets in "Dreamz" would make Mad Magazine turn away in disgust. Self-absorbed, fame-obsessed, dim-witted "American Idol" contestants? Lampooning "American Idol" in general? A dense southern President? With a manipulative Chief of Staff (acting like Rove, dressed like Cheney) pulling his strings? These are the salivating subjects Weitz has come to make fun of. I hate to break it to him, but these topics have been satirized to death in every medium imaginable, and in the case of "Idol," it's already a heavily acknowledged, strongly discomforting cultural speed bump. The filmmaker is merely beating a dead horse trying to arrange these subjects into some type of carnival of satiric hilarity.
Since the screenplay wiring of "Dreamz" is faulty from the start, the picture takes on a runaway train style of filmmaking, speeding down a track of mediocrity as it doles out the demerits to its characters. On the edges of the film, you can see Weitz's good intentions if you squint. President Stanton is a boob, but he desires to learn more about the political wasteland through newspapers, only to be shut down by his wife's Prozac and his worried staff. The "Dreamz" contest purposefully features Arab and Jewish contestants, yet nothing comes from that idea. There's also Omer's suicide bomber subplot that could've gone anywhere, but Weitz takes it to the obvious conclusion, with a little shock value thrown in for good measure. The Simon Cowell stand-in, Martin Tweed, has the initial fragrance of a deeply needed roasting of the TV icon; however, Weitz spells out Tweed's inner monologue too often, giving him dialog admitting his self-loathing to others instead of letting Grant play it internally.
Perhaps "Dreamz" would be more successful as a send-up had Weitz cast actors capable of some impression of nuance. When I think comedy, Chris Klein (hamming it up as Sally's Iraq War vet boyfriend), Mandy Moore, Dennis Quaid, Judy Greer, and Shohreh Aghdashloo (as Omer's pampered aunt) are the last names on my list. These actors "Benny Hill" the script up, using an assortment of bug-eyes and winks to the camera to let the audience know they're in on the joke. Only Willem Dafoe seems to comprehend how to pitch this material smoothly. Criminally, actors with crack comic timing, such as Jeffrey Ross and Seth Meyers, are given mere cameos.
"Dreamz" soon barnstorms into kindergarten song parodies (the rock star contestant performs a song aptly titled "I Rock"), slapstick, and looks to climax with a smidge of absurdity. "American Dreamz" struggles so mightily to be clever it forgets to be competent, and overall directorial clumsiness quickly severs Weitz's attempt at a decimating satirical blow to the shallow end of the American culture pool.
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