Writer/director Paul Weitz has lived a sort of charmed movie life. From starting the American Pie series and directing a not-so-good Chris Rock movie, he moved on to About a Boy and In Good Company, two of the best comedy/dramas of the last several years. The latter was his first effort without his brother Chris, and I thought it was one of the biggest surprises of 2004. Naturally, this made me excited for American Dreamz.
Conceptually, American Dreamz is a perfect satirical vehicle for critiquing the way our modern celebrity culture creates a big sandpit that we can all stick our heads in when we want to ignore the turmoil currently rocking our world. Hugh Grant plays Martin Tweed, the self-loathing host of "American Dreamz," the nation's most popular television program, a showcase for the talentless to step onto a stage and pretend they can sing. A new season is about to start, and if Tweed is going to have to go through it again, he wants it to be different. For as apple-cheeked and camera friendly as Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore, real-life pop singer and star of A Walk to Remember) may be, her Midwestern appeal is not enough for Tweed. He demands his talent scouts (John Cho and the always funny Judy Greer) find him some diversity.
Enter Omer Obeidi (Sam Golzari). Omer was formerly training to be a terrorist in the Middle East, but for his own good, he's been sent to America to join a sleeper cell that everyone hopes will never call him to wake up. His obsession with Broadway show tunes doesn't really make him terrorist material. It does, however, make him "American Dreamz" material, and he is cast on the show by accident.
Also set to appear on the new season of "American Dreamz" is President Joe Staton (Dennis Quaid), who has just won his second term but has sequestered himself in the Presidential bedroom rather than govern the nation. For the first time in his life, he has read the newspapers and has discovered that the war he started in Iraq is a mess he can't get out of. It depresses him, and nothing his wife (Marcia Gay Harden) or his puppetmaster Chief of Staff (Willem Dafoe) do can pull him out of his funk. To try to save his spiraling approval ratings, Dafoe books him on the finale of everyone's favorite television show.
This is where the alarm clock goes off for Omer's sleeper cell. He is instructed to win the competition at all costs, and when the President comes on to congratulate him, Omer will detonate a bomb and kill their greatest enemy.
Yes, it's a very convoluted plot, and it takes Weitz quite a bit of time to set it up. The idea is great, but one quickly senses that American Dreamz has bitten off more than it can chew, as Weitz takes his good sweet time getting everything underway. Even more than the above has to be established before we can get to the talent show proper. Sally has a boyfriend (Chris Klein) who is wounded on his first day as a soldier in Iraq, for instance, and his new veteran status is an easy ploy to be exploited by Sally's slimy agent (Seth Meyers). At the same time, Omer is going to become accustomed to American life and Tweed is going to fall for Sally, the only person he knows who is as unemotional as he is.
Yes, definitely more than American Dreamz can chew, and it's made all the harder because Weitz hasn't given his film any teeth. The stories revolving around the television show come close, and there are some good laughs pulled out of the pursuit of the clueless for fame. Mandy Moore in particular is fun to watch, and with this and her screwball turn on the fifth season of Scrubs, I'd like to see her do more comedy. The songs she and the other contestants sing hit all the right styles for lampooning--the earnest rock guy, the sensitive loverboy, the diva with more wind than heart--but they aren't very incisive. They come off as rejects from bad "SNL" skits. Similarly, Tweed's putdowns aren't very cruel, nothing as genuinely mean as what Simon Cowell would say on "American Idol."
It's all just too nice. If you're going to punch at the shallowness of fame seekers, then you have to be vicious, more like Drop Dead Gorgeous or a Christopher Guest film. The nice guy routine got Weitz through About a Boy and In Good Company, but it doesn't fit in American Dreamz. Especially not when political humor is brought into it. Quaid and Dafoe are giving Weitz dead-on impressions of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and as actors they are prepared to go for the jugular; however, the script is too shy for that. In the world of American Dreamz, everyone is basically good, just maybe misguided. So, President Staton is really a loveable guy who was steered wrong, and since he's willing to say "sorry" about all the people who have died in Iraq, he's not so bad. Omer won't even blow him up.
American Dreamz is a mega disappointment. What could have been a daring and timely film is a namby-pamby attempt at a feel-good movie that brings up hard issues only in order to duck out of them. The cast is up for the challenge and deliver admirable performances that belong in the movie I really wanted to see. Maybe someone else can round them up for a second go and this time take the kid gloves off.
"Center Stage: Sally Kendoo" is a spot-on send-up of the vapid backstage tours filmed for entertainment "news" programs. Mandy Moore does the whole thing in character, and you can tell she's done it before. Even the editing captures that stuttery MTV feeling.
"Dance Dreamz" is a real behind-the-scenes featurette with Sam Golzari, Paul Weitz, and Tony Yalda, who plays Omer's hilarious cousin. Both Yalda and Golzari worked with choreographer Jennifer Li (her name is misspelled on the back cover of the DVD; for shame!) and particular attention is paid to her work with Golzari on Omer's performance of "The Impossible Dream," a pastiche of about a million different music video moves and one of the best scenes in American Dreamz.
The commentary by Weitz begins with him pondering whether DVD commentaries are actually a good idea, as they tend to lock down the "meaning" of a film and leave no room for audience interpretation (I tend to agree; must everything be explained for us?). He then decides that the commentary will serve as his own form of therapy and enters into the emotion that lead to him writing American Dreamz and some of his identification with the Hugh Grant character. Despite his best efforts, he does fall into some regular commentary clichés (which he notes), but it's good stuff, talking about the actors and the use of ensemble casts and even film history. Weitz does reveal why he chose to avoid more pointed political criticism, but in honor of his opinions about commentaries, I won't let that change how I viewed the movie.
Actor Sam Golzari joins Weitz at the forty-five minute mark. This, naturally, makes the talking more conversational, and given that this is Golzari's first big role, he discusses it with enthusiasm. There's a good dynamic between them, and everything they talk about is really interesting, sometimes moreso than what's actually happening in American Dreamz.