American Dreamz Review
It's not often that Hollywood attempts satire these days so American Dreamz deserves credit just for trying. Its writer and director Paul Weitz uses the story of an American Idol-style talent contest to take aim at a broad range of contemporary American issues, from reality television and celebrity culture to the Bush administration and the Middle East. The one-time director of American Pie is a long way from horny teens and dick jokes. Unfortunately he's a little out of his depth. Like the contestants on the fictional talent show, the movie displays wildly mixed results.
American Dreamz is the top-rated programme on American TV, an amateur singing competition presided over by brutally sarcastic English host Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant). The losing contestants end up on the receiving end of Tweed's acid tongue but the winner is promised fame and fortune. A new season is imminent and from all over the country, starry-eyed hopefuls send in audition tapes. Among them is ruthless blonde wannabe Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), who ditches her drippy boyfriend (Chris Klein) as soon as she's accepted but takes him back when he's wounded in Iraq and her agent convinces her this will play to her advantage.
Martin Tweed wants a little controversy this year so he demands that among the contestants should be a Jew and an Arab. The Arab chosen is Iraqi kid Omer (Sam Golzari), who loves show tunes and just happens to be a terrorist, albeit an incompetent one who's been sent to America by his commanders to get rid of him. Omer suddenly becomes useful again when it's announced that the President of the United States (Dennis Quaid) will be appearing on the final episode of American Dreamz as a guest judge.
As an attack on glorified karaoke contests like American Idol and The X Factor, American Dreamz is at its sharpest. It highlights the cynicism of the programmes, the way contestants are selected based on the media attention they will attract rather than their talent (choosing Sally, Tweed explains, "I want someone to masturbate over"). The film also makes a subtle implication of racism on the part of the producers, echoing similar accusations against American Idol. The sadism of the eliminations is nicely skewered yet the contestants aren't portrayed as innocents. In many cases they're as cynical and media-savvy as the show's producers.
Hugh Grant is excellent as Martin Tweed. Grant always excels when he's playing against his lovable Brit stereotype - the slimy love-rat he played in Bridget Jones' Diary revitalised his career. Cast as a jaded TV presenter who berates his contestants like Simon Cowell, Grant is terrifically hissable. He's matched by Mandy Moore, a former Britney-esque teen pop star who proved she could act in 2002's under-rated romance A Walk To Remember and then delivered a startlingly good performance as a hateful Jesus-freak in 2004's Saved! Moore absolutely nails the soulless Sally Kendoo, a girl raised to believe popularity is all that matters. In terms of scary single-mindedness, Sally is only one small step behind Nicole Kidman's homicidal weathergirl in To Die For.
The media satire is bang on target. It's when American Dreamz sets its sights on the White House and American foreign policy that the film lets itself down. Its jabs at politics are as toothless as its attacks on television are biting. I'm not even sure what political message we're supposed to take or if there is one. President Staton, an obvious Bush substitute is portrayed as a dumb but lovable redneck who's being used by his sneaky advisors (led by Willem Dafoe) to further their own agenda. Does Chris Weitz seriously see George W Bush that way?
Whether he's lovable I'll leave for you to decide but Bush isn't a redneck and he isn't dumb. It's amazing how many of his opponents fall hook, line and sinker for what is basically the same man-of-the-people act Clinton put on. Bush knows his most important demographic is less well-off white Americans and his strategy to win their votes is to convince them he's one of them. In actuality, he's a rich kid from a fabulously powerful family, who went to an Ivy League university and has spent his life in and out of politics and the oil business. Call him what you like but if you really think he's stupid, the joke's on you.
President Staton is poorly conceived and badly miscast. This is a role crying out for a comedian like Will Ferrell (who portrayed Bush on Saturday Night Live) who could at least have some fun with the president. Dennis Quaid can be a funny actor but he's not a comedian and he's not someone who should be asked to play dumb or do broad comedy. In 1989 he all but destroyed his career hamming it up as Jerry Lee Lewis in Great Balls Of Fire. He's nothing like as bad here but he's clearly the wrong actor for the part and his scenes fall flat, despite the valiant efforts of Willem Dafoe as his slimy Chief of Staff and Marcia Gay Harden as the First Lady.
Chris Weitz obviously likes to cast actors he's worked with before. It pays off with Hugh Grant (About A Boy) and Jennifer Coolidge (Down To Earth) who's slyly funny as Sally Kendoo's white trash mom but it doesn't with Quaid (In Good Company) or with Chris Klein (American Pie) who's far too sympathetic to play a delusional fool. Klein's final scenes are hard to accept simply because of who's playing the role.
The ending is at once darker than you might expect and blander. Consistent with the rest of the film, the satire on American Idol concludes with vicious, jet-black comedy while the political material is wrapped up with such astonishing banality that you wonder if it's part of the joke (I don't think it is). Here's a film that tackles TV talent shows and the Middle East and leaves you with the impression that it's more worked up about TV talent shows. Isn't Weitz supposed to be making fun of people who care more about what happens on American Idol that on the news?