There’s a peculiarly painful sensation one gets when witnessing a comedy build toward its big moment, having carefully laid all out all the correct elements and primed you for all the gags as it leads up to the orchestrated finale and then… Just. Doesn’t. Get. There. You get that feeling quite a lot in Paul Weitz
’s American Dreamz, about an American Idol-like reality show which becomes the linchpin in a dangerously rickety skit about wannabe celebrities, and yes, the war on terror (because one must be relevant). There’s another feeling one gets, and it comes from that oft-ignored voice in the back of your head, the one that says, Hey, maybe we shouldn’t be laughing at this, even if it was funny.
What are we supposed to make of this queasy and uncertain concoction that lands a few weak punches and then dances safely back out of range? Weitz is no Wilder, but he’s done better than most in comedy. American Pie may have brought us an unfortunate amount of Chris Klein
, and In Good Company was hardly a beacon of originality, but they both possessed a refreshing amount of heart; while About a Boy proved that Hugh Grant
’s louche side is his best one. These were all films of modest means that succeeded beyond their stated intent. With American Dreamz, writer/director Weitz not only bites off more than he can chew, he (not to mention we) can barely get his mouth around the thing. Article continues below
The constellation of players include: Britney-like Ohioan pop striver Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore
), Simon Cowell-esque host Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant), a president and vice-president (Dennis Quaid
and Willem Dafoe
) who just may resemble a pair currently in power over there in D.C., and Omer (Sam Golzari
), a clumsy, showtunes-loving terrorist (you read that right) who accidentally gets on the show after being sent to join a sleeper cell in Orange County. There’s also Sally’s sweet but dumb-as-rocks boyfriend William Williams (Chris Klein), who runs off to the army after she dumps him, and Omer’s flaming-gay cousin Iqbal (Tony Yalda
) who thinks he deserves to be on the show, and a number of fine performers like Shohreh Aghdashloo, Judy Greer, and John Cho wasted in dead-end roles. With all this at hand, Weiss aims to plug into some sort of vein of current American irreality, juxtaposing the fanatic public adulation of this TV show with the grinding presence of the war and the terrorist threat, but ends up splashing them all with the same cartoonish colors and scoring only the easiest of points.
There is ample opportunity here, it’s just not utilized. Quaid plays his Bush stand-in with ardent vigor as a decent but none-too-bright man who wakes up the day after his reelection and announces to his stunned manservant, “I’m going to read the newspaper.” Cut to weeks later and the president bedroom is thick with papers and books, the commander in chief’s head dangerously expanding, saying incredulously to his Cheney-like VP (Dafoe, mixing just the right amount of malice and buffoonery), “Did you know there were three different kinds of Iraqistanis?” But then this line of broad mockery is abandoned for a “Terrorist Training Camp” in some California desert masquerading as the generic Middle East, where Omer – who became a terrorist because his mom was killed by an American bomb; funny, that – dances to showtunes in his tent. Then it switches again to Ohio for some dreadfully unfunny reality-show-contestant satire that flops dead on arrival due to Moore’s dead fish of a performance. Like Grant – who should have turned in a killer Cowell impression here, and whose soulless character bonds with Moore – she remains on the leash, never fully engaging. About the only thing in the too widely ranging American Dreamz that works is Omer, a sweetheart of a character whose earnest lack of talent is as endearing in the film as it would be on a reality show – for a satire aimed at modern society, he’s about the only character who could actually exist in it.
It has been said by some that Paul Greengrass
’s United 93
– prior to its opening, at least – is an exploitation of a national tragedy, a shameless attempt to make dramaturgical hay from an episode that should be treated with more respect. The jury of public opinion has yet, of course, to make a ruling in that matter. Until then, though, we have American Dreamz, which seems to think that the Iraq War, terrorism, the death of innocent Middle Easterners by American hands, and the current White House situation are all just as equally worthy targets of spoofery and fun as is reality TV. It’s not really a cynical or outrageous point of view, but just a really lazy one, and offensively, exploitatively so.