Genre: Comedy, Music
Play time: 1h 47min
Director: Paul Weitz
Screenwriters: Paul Weitz
Starring: Hugh Grant, Dennis Quaid, Mandy Moore
I am surely overrating Paul Weitz’ American Dreamz, because truth be told, it is fairly wretched: a shrill, blunt-instrument satire that takes aim at the most superficial conception of American society and half the time can’t even hit the wide target it contrives. But Weitz is a talented joke writer, and he and his enviable cast manage to squeeze a disproportionate amount of yuks from the silly premise and the half-baked attempts at subversion. As such, the film is more enjoyable than it reasonably should be, but the aftertaste it leaves is undeniable.
A prerequisite to any level of enjoyment is the realization and acceptance of the fact that American Dreamz is unapologetically operating at the broadest level of caricature. The President of the United States (Dennis Quaid) is a dim-witted (though inquisitive) puppet, with a unctuous handler (Willem Dafoe) pulling the strings. To restore his popularity (after he starts reading newspapers, concludes that “Iran and North Korea are not just like Dr. Octopus and Magneto,” and goes into seclusion), he is directed to be a guest judge on “American Dreamz,” the most popular television show in the history of television, and one that bears an extraordinary similarity to our American Idol. “American Dreamz” is hosted by the arrogant, “famous for being famous” Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant), who opens the film by telling his girlfriend that she makes him want to be a better person, but he’s not a better person, so therefore she should leave. Meanwhile, a cell of Arab terrorist order one of its operatives, who is uniquely fond of show tunes, to get to the championship round of the show and blow up the President.
You get the idea. American Dreamz doesn’t leave much to the imagination, so determined to get the parallels across that to hell with parallels — straightforward ridicule is easier than satire. But Weitz has a diabolical way of disguising this as a bona fide brand of humor: when a character informs us that “everyone in America thinks they’re middle-class; they need someone to look down on,” this isn’t a repugnant literalization of what might have been a worthwhile theme but a comedic modus operandi. Weitz didn’t take this absurd escape route in About a Boy or In Good Company. What gives?
The last act devolves into utter, indiscriminate chaos, as the film had apparently managed to build up a reserve of bitterness and proceeded to lash out in a dozen directions at once. The last scenes are both laughably over-the-top and almost entirely unfunny, the fever pitch obscuring Weitz’s wit and leaving only the obnoxious, condescending pop culture polemic. On the plus side, it certainly demonstrates the depth of the filmmaker’s hatred for American Idol.
Even with that, I can’t deny that American Dreamz has some killer lines and a number of spot-on performances, especially the one by Mandy Moore as a conniving Dreamz contestant. She has the one interesting character here, really — the only instance of Weitz applying his pet theme of puppetry with any degree of finesse. But the handful of surface pleasures can’t obscure the movie’s rotten core. It’s annoying and dumb, yes, but it’s also offputtingly hateful: I have no stake in American Idol and its ilk, but I doubt that American Dreamz is much smarter than what it’s satirizing. It hasn’t earned the right to scorn.