Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant) is the host and sole judge on "American Dreamz," a hugely popular "Idol"-esque TV show about to begin a new season. But Tweed, bored, barbaric and British, wants to shake things up this year. He orders his staff to ensure that an Arab and a Jew are among the competitors, and when the president of the United States says he wants to appear as a guest judge for the finale, well, that should be good for a laugh, too.
The president is Joseph Staton (Dennis Quaid), a recently re-elected Bible-thumper who does whatever his chief of staff Sutter (Willem Dafoe, in a Cheney/Rove bald cap) tells him. But Staton, experiencing something of a mid-term mid-life crisis, has actually started reading the newspapers and thinking for himself. In fact, he's so ensconced in the world of current affairs and book-learning that he hasn't appeared in public in several weeks, leading to rumors he's had a nervous breakdown, and prompting Sutter's efforts to get him on "American Dreamz."
Meanwhile, the early front-runner in this year's "Dreamz" is Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), a perky-as-punch Ohio blonde who can turn on the charm in public as easily as she can turn on the connivery in private. In that respect, she is the soulmate of Martin Tweed, and the two find kinship in their duplicitous black-heartedness. This distresses Sally's boyfriend William (Chris Klein), a semi-wounded Army volunteer whom she's dating solely because it looks good on TV to have a boyfriend who fought in Iraq.
But what about the Arab and Jew Martin requested? The Jew gets shortchanged (as do a lot of the film's story elements), but the Arab is front and center. He's Omer (Sam Golzari), a bumbling but sweet former terrorist-in-training who was exiled by his Iraqi handlers to live with his cousins in America. Omer was never cut out for terrorism anyway; he prefers singing and dancing. Nonetheless, when his handlers tell him to use his "Dreamz" appearance -- and the presence of the U.S. president as a guest judge -- to further the cause, he has no choice but to obey.
Yes, writer/director Paul Weitz has his hands full here, and "American Dreamz" isn't as accomplished or smooth as his "American Pie," "About a Boy" and "In Good Company." (It's better than his Chris Rock misfire "Down to Earth," though.) While it's never boring, some scenes do feel like they ought to be funnier, or at least end more succinctly.
It's also a shame to see so many great characters and subplots underused. Omer's Americanized Iraqi cousins, led by the great Shohreh Aghdashloo; John Cho and Judy Greer as Martin's assistants; "SNL's" Seth Meyers as Sally's snaky agent; Jennifer Coolidge as her opportunistic mother; Marcia Gay Harden as the First Lady -- any of these roles could have been enhanced. There's a line between memorable supporting characters who serve their purpose and then disappear, and great supporting characters who make us feel like their scenes were deleted. This film crosses that line.
But it's the most outrightly satirical thing Weitz has done, and he demonstrates a real knack for it. The scenes mocking "American Idol" are hilariously accurate, from the types of contestants (the black diva, the prettified white boy, the wannabe rocker), to the drippy songs they choose, to the audience's fanatic devotion.
Hugh Grant is never better than when he's onstage as Martin Tweed, a perfectly unctuous TV airhead. He's not as charming in the offstage scenes as we like our Hugh Grants to be, but what can you do? He's working with Mandy Moore, for crying out loud.
Which brings me to an important point. The film is being marketed to Mandy Moore's demographic, but that audience will not enjoy it. They won't appreciate the multi-layered satire at work. The preview audience I saw it with often didn't even realize the jokes WERE jokes, let alone how funny they were. Besides, Moore's character is a scheming vixen, not the sweetheart her fans are used to.
Curiously, the one truly sincere character in the whole thing is President Staton, played with fiendish glee by Dennis Quaid. Staton may be an uncharitable send-up of our real-life commander in chief, but at least he's honest. You see in his arc (he's the only character who has one) a hint of what has made Weitz's previous films so winning: that layer of heart underneath the comedy that drives the whole thing home.