THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"AMERICAN DREAMZ"

American Dreamz asks the hypothetical question: What if President Bush was a guest judge on “American Idol?” Like a Mad Magazine piece come to life, the film smashes together the worlds of politics and entertainment, suggesting that they’re not much different except for the fact that people care too much about the latter and not enough about the former. At the end of the final credits, there is a standard disclaimer stating that the characters are “fictional” and that “any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” This may be the biggest joke in the whole movie, as nearly every major character is clearly modeled on someone very real.

Dennis Quaid plays President Joseph Staton, a George W. Bush-type leader who has just been elected to his second term. The pressures of the election may have caused him to have a nervous breakdown; he refuses to get out of bed and won’t face the press. Staton’s Chief of Staff (Willem Dafoe, made up to look like Dick Cheney) expresses his concern about the media’s growing suspicion. He wants Staton to make a public appearance to prove that everything in the White House is okay. The Laura Bush-resembling First Lady (Marcia Gay Harden) agrees that something must be done. A plan is hatched to have Staton appear as a guest judge on the nation’s most popular television show: a singing competition called “American Dreamz.”

Hugh Grant plays Martin Tweed, the snooty British producer/judge on the show. He’s known for making needlessly cruel comments to contestants. (Paging Simon Cowell!) To prepare for the new season of his show, Tweed sends his employees out to find exploitable subjects. Singing ability is quite clearly secondary to having a good backstory. The prime discovery is Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), a lower-class girl from a small Ohio town. Sally is a bull’s-eye on all fronts: she’s blonde, she’s cute, and she can actually sing (not unlike, say, Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood). Even better, she’s got an on-again/off-again boyfriend (Chris Klein) who was wounded in Iraq. She is also very willing to manipulate her image to win.

Tweed deeply appreciates Sally’s kind of shrewdness, and he targets her as one of the contestants to help. He also gives a nudge to a young man from the Middle East named Omer (Sam Golzari). What no one knows is that Omer was a terrorist-in-training in his homeland. Because he was so inept, he was sent to live with some distant relatives in America. When word gets to terrorist leaders that the showtune-loving Omer has made it onto “American Dreamz,” the terrorist leaders order him to get to the finals, then blow himself up while standing next to President Staton.

American Dreamz was written and directed by Paul Weitz, who is working somewhat out of his comfort zone in doing a satire. Weitz has so far specialized in stories about very relatable characters (About a Boy, In Good Company and even, in its own way, American Pie). Satire, by its very definition, requires an exaggeration of character. You can still have someone to root for, as the recent Thank You For Smoking proved, but in this case the characters all seem so much like real people that we don’t necessarily invest in them emotionally. Having said that, all the actors do a good job playing exaggerated versions of actual politicians/celebrities. I especially liked Hugh Grant, who nicely captures the smug self-satisfaction of Simon Cowell.

What’s interesting about the movie is that, while it’s only moderately funny, it’s extremely amusing. There are certainly some laughs here (especially in hour two), but it’s not a film that makes you laugh consistently. Somehow, that doesn’t really matter though. By taking on so many targets – and aiming at them so mercilessly – there is a lot of fun to be had watching American Dreamz.

The film wastes no time taking shots at subjects both large and small. It suggests that politics and entertainment have become over-reliant on selling a marketable image, regardless of how accurate it may be. The immense popularity of “American Idol” is also subject to scorn. Martin Tweedy actively favors certain contestants, which is a charge that “Idol” has often been accused of. (Contestants whose back-stories are spotlighted during initial rounds often tend to make it further in the competition, even if they’re not the best singers. Witness this season’s Kellie Pickler, who has become a fan-favorite thanks to a winning packaging of her history.)

Perhaps the most poignant – and interesting – theme in American Dreamz is that the public at large seems to care more about pop culture than world events. Walk into any workplace, family get-together, or party and you’re more likely to hear a heated conversation about who should win “American Idol” than a serious discussion of, say, the war in Iraq or the state of the economy. I don’t mean to imply that people don’t discuss political topics (of course they do) but it’s easier to wrap our collective minds around the frivolous than the vital. Because we often feel helpless in changing things politically, we retreat to other things. And maybe we need to try a little harder to correct that.

In the end, I recommend American Dreamz for its ideas and no-punches-pulled approach. It is not the most focused satire I’ve ever seen, but it held my interest throughout. Paul Weitz has packed his film with all the frustration he clearly feels with modern society. In a time when a lot of movies, like Sally Kendoo, are prepackaged, it’s nice to see one that has a flicker of rage against the machine.

( out of four)


American Dreamz is rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 47 minutes.

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