The return of the ballsy political satire to the cineplex is a good sign, I think. Thank You for Smoking took on the government spin that we are fed on a daily basis, and American Dreamz takes on life as we know it. The film gleefully roasts everything from wannabe TV stars to terrorists to the government, and I see it as a good sign that such films can exist in our culture of fear. We are not entirely intimidated.
“American Dreamz”, in the literal, is a fictional American Idol. The show’s host, Martin Tweed (Grant), is a Simon Cowell clone who is constantly looking for ways to spice up the show, even when its ratings are through the roof. He’s looking to recruit a wide array of talent, and they come in the form of a down home Ohio girl (Moore) and Omer (Sam Golzari), an Arab who is sent to the United States on a martyr mission only to mistakenly end up on the show after being confused for his relative, Iqbal (Tony Yalda). Running parallel to that is the story of President Staton (Quaid), a Bush clone who has just discovered the joys of reading. His ratings are down and he becomes a recluse to the bedroom because of his sudden fascination with literature. The First Lady (Gay Harden) can only coddle him while Vice President Sutter (Dafoe, in a dead-on satire of Dick Cheney) calls all the shots. To boost ratings, it is arranged for the President to appear on the final episode of “American Dreamz”, which gives Omer and his cohorts the perfect opportunity to accomplish their mission.
Paul Weitz’s script is loaded with satire and is never scared to pull out the stereotypes. The first third of it is comic brilliance, but the laughs taper off from there as the film slowly learns that it cannot keep recycling the same jokes continuously. An ongoing bit involving an ear piece the President wears so that Sutter can tell him what to say is hysterical, mainly because I have a sneaking suspicion it is very true-to-life. The suicide bomber material at first seems uncomfortable, but it is eventually given a Naked Gun-style treatment that makes for some wonderful black humor. That the film is not as consistently funny as it could have been is bothersome, but when it strikes the right chord it is quite memorable.
The performances are fantastic all around, with Willem Dafoe stealing every scene he is in. Sporting a bald cap and an ultra-serious demeanor, Dafoe transforms into Dick Cheney and runs the 100-yard dash with it. Dennis Quaid is effective as the clueless President who is completely out of touch with any form of reality, and it comes complete with an interchangeable southern accent. Mandy Moore is also noteworthy as the increasingly egotistical small town singing talent, and things only get worse when she gets an agent.
American Dreamz is a sharp satire in a time when we need as many laughs as we can get at our own expense. Films like this and Thank You for Smoking are not only smart, but immensely entertaining. We can reflect on our own absurd tendencies and laugh at ourselves instead of farts or projectile vomiting. That’s the best kind of comedy, and the most fulfilling.
Studio: Universal Pictures
Length: 107 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language and some sexual references.
Theatrical Release: April 21, 2006
Directed by: Paul Weitz
Written by: Paul Weitz
Cast: Hugh Grant, Dennis Quaid, Mandy Moore, Marcia Gay Harden, Chris Klein, Jennifer Coolidge