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2006-04-26 23:03:25 (link)
American Dreamz - Review

American Dreamz held real promise. Writer-director Paul Weitz had grown from American Pie through About a Boy and In Good Company into an able craftsman of funny and increasingly poignant work. The latter two saw him coax top performances from Hugh Grant and Dennis Quaid, with whom he would reunite for the new release. Sic this team on the Bush administration, American Idol, and the dicey mechanics of fame and politics, and the result should at least be interesting to watch. But instead, American Dreamz made it to the table as a sad, tepid hash in which none of the ingredients is sufficiently fresh.

The movie follows a handful of intertwining storylines. The smarmy host (Grant) of an American Idol-like show called “American Dreamz” tries to stir up the show’s new season to fight the monotony; a shallow, ambitious girl (Mandy Moore) from small town America will make any compromise to find fame and fortune on the show; the dim-witted American President (Quaid) soul-searches as he begins actually reading newspapers at the beginning of his second term; and a well-meaning, but incompetent young Arab orphan (Sam Golzari) recruited to terror is shunted off to Orange County, where his penchant for show tunes unwittingly leads him to the show.

American Dreamz is built on a poor foundation. It’s easy to call Bush a slow-minded, out-of-touch puppet riding his father’s coattails, but if your jokes and critiques bear no more teeth than that, then your satire is more gumming than biting. The same applies to spoofing American Idol. The show does so much to acknowledge its own machinery and the mediocrity of its contestants that merely parading these ideas has no effect. With both Bush and American Idol, Weitz doesn’t really abstract them enough to make his portrayals any more absurd than the genuine articles. That’s a bad recipe for satire or comedy. Things only get worse when one of your other core ideas is that watching people with accents sing never loses its novelty.

Weitz’ special talent has always been finding laughs and heart in superficially uninteresting places. American Dreamz marks an overambitious, under-conceived juggling act. The movie seems glued together from a series of big “Wouldn’t it be funny if (blank)?” ideas, each of which is half-baked. What’s most unfortunate is that you can see a better movie shining through the cracks.

Quaid and Golzari offer game performances with surprising heart, and there are few greater joys in cinema than Hugh Grant when he’s having fun, which seems true here. Meanwhile, Moore is too nakedly engineered in her persona and career to be the sweetheart star she was intended to be, but she’s great at playing callous, over-constructed bitches, as demonstrated both here and in Saved!. And Willem Dafoe rounds out the stellar cast in a fun turn as a Dick Cheney/Karl Rove figure. But even the greatest cast can’t carry the burden of a script that leaves its actors coated in flop sweat.

In a parallel universe of unmade movies, American Dreamz is a top-notch screwball comedy. The same cast shows the same kind of enthusiasm for the absurd, and with the same underlying heart. The politics might be the same, but with less explication, and the whole presidential storyline would be reconfigured to serve some sort of purpose. The pace would be made twice as fast, and the result might be the most uniquely, deliriously funny movie of the season; almost like a Sullivan’s Travels for a new generation.

But in this universe, all we have is a painful swing and a miss. Though often amusing, American Dreamz is little more than an artifact of a bad idea; a record of what garnered spoofing, without knowing how to spoof it.

by Amos Posner


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