When movies try to please everyone, they wind up only pleasing a few and ultimately contribute to a vast pile of mediocrity that is soon forgotten. By next week, it’s old news—and six months from now I’ll bet dozens of American Dreamz DVDs will be found in discount bins at Blockbuster Video. The target audience is a big one, though: TV viewers who scoff at the ridiculousness and cultural shallowness of American Idol (or The Apprentice and Survivor for that matter) but tune in every week anyway. Combine that with the folks who consider George W. Bush an incompetent boob but thank their lucky stars he isn’t a pantywaist liberal. His administration may be corrupt, but they believe Dubya, at heart, is a simple man who speaks simple, straight shootin’ American Values. A random quote from our guy: “Americans of every party and background, Americans by choice and by birth, are bound to one another in the cause of freedom.” The audience still buys it, more or less, or at least they want to still buy it, and American Dreamz sells it to them wholesale.
On the morning following his reelection, the American president (a stand-in for Bush named “President Staton” and played here with gusto by Dennis Quaid, who really ought to do more—and better—comedies) stays in bed and, on a whim, reads the newspaper. This radical act makes President Bush—I mean, Staton—suddenly, magically realize he’s been following a party line set in motion by his corrupt Secretary of State (Willem Dafoe, also very funny), and that he needs to fall out of lockstep with a White House staff that has led him astray. (To pause for a brief reality check, lest anyone be confused that this alternate reality of our president has any basis in real life, let’s remind ourselves that Dubya just told the press days before American Dreamz opens in theaters everywhere, “Don Rumsfeld is doing a fine job.”) In order to bolster the president’s approval ratings and stifle his newly found independent thoughts, he’s signed up as the judge for the season finale of America’s favorite TV singing contest, American Dreamz. Not a bad idea for a comedy sketch, but this proves a very thin joke to hang a plot thread on.
As with all of Paul Weitz’s movies, which include American Pie, About a Boy, and In Good Company, the style is TV-sitcom friendly and mostly well cast. The most enjoyable subplot involves the befuddled young Iraqi terrorist (appealingly played by Sam Golzari) stationed in Beverly Hills with the goal of using his love of Broadway show tunes to win the contest and then transform into a suicide bomber and take out an American cultural institution (if reality TV can be called “culture”) and the president in one fell swoop. The situation and dialogue are as superficial as you’d expect, but Golzari shows genuine charm and clearly deserves a star vehicle for himself a la his Dreamz co-star John Cho’s delightful brush with stardom in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. (Sadly, Cho is demoted here to a forgettable second-fiddle role as one of the TV show’s producers, treated here like errand boys.)
Most of the film’s attempted humor is in the behind-the-scenes mechanizations of the reality show. Hugh Grant plays the Simon Cowell stand-in as a self-loathing pretty boy hiding behind a shark’s grin. The character and those on the show surrounding him are rarely milked for their full comic potential. Indeed, the lineup of contestants is indistinguishable from your standard episode of American Idol, and their brazen desire for fame at all costs doesn’t seem much more grotesque than the distorted lens of the reality television we see in the comfort of our own homes. It makes one wonder whether American Dreamz is attempting to satirize pop culture, or merely recreate it. The answer is: it tries to do both, appeasing fans while at the same time twisting the knife. Too bad the knife is dull. If you hate American Idol as much as I do, the musical numbers in American Dreamz, particularly those involving wholesome it-girl Mandy Moore, will be torture. And if you secretly enjoy the show, you’ll probably still be scratching your head wondering where all the jokes are. How does one satirize a show (or a president) that nobody takes seriously anyway?