Wanna knock the prez? Let's make a show -- preferably on television. Paul Weitz's new satire American Dreamz imagines the Bush regime as an episode in the history of American entertainment and American Idol as the quintessence of U.S. democracy. So what else is new?
The vision of America as a vast, ratings-driven amateur hour is not without promise, but Weitz's movie, named for the most popular TV program in its parallel universe, is disappointingly soft in its individual characterizations. Indeed, as befits a director whose slice of the American pie has been predicated on a self-proclaimed "franchise" of gross-out comedies, the movie is mainly about tolerance. (He knows, firsthand, that the American people have it.)
American Dreamz is a movie with two world-historic players and a raft of wannabes. As host of the eponymous TV show, Hugh Grant plays the role of the smarmy swine with convincing self-loathing. "I envy myself deeply," he tells his gorgeous girlfriend as she leaves him. Scouting new contestants, Grant actually finds one as callous as he is -- an Ohio cheerleader (singer-actress Mandy Moore) who is as eager to exploit her Iraq War-injured boyfriend as she is to mimic Christina Aguilera.
Moore's ultimate rival is a Chorus Line-loving Iraqi mujahid (avid newcomer Sam Golzari) sent to America by his disgusted comrades as a sleeper agent who will never be activated. Installed at the Beverly Hills home of his unsuspecting, bizarrely nouveau relatives, Golzari winds up on Grant's show. America is the land of opportunity: His queeny cousin submitted an audition tape, and when the show's representatives turn up, they take Golzari for the applicant. (Like Steven Spielberg in Munich's second-worst scene, Weitz is pleased to exaggerate the appeal of American pop music in the Arab world.)
Meanwhile, America's president (Dennis Quaid) has just been returned to office. In a paroxysm of rebelliousness, he elects to stay in bed and read a newspaper rather than meet the press. Harking back to the sitcom protag of Comedy Central's That's My Bush!, the Weitz conception of our maximum leader as a timid moron is hardly unsympathetic. "My mom wanted to show my dad any idiot could do it," Quaid explains to his sweetly medicated wife (Marcia Gay Harden), pushing the movie's talent-show premise into the political realm.
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As one might expect, too much information precipitates a presidential breakdown; Quaid is shown surrounded by books, with Benjamin Barber's prophetic Jihad vs. McWorld prominently positioned for the camera. Whether or not the president takes Barber's argument seriously, Weitz surely does: Barber's pre-9/11 formulation, "When Jihad and McWorld collide on television, there is little doubt about who wins," turns out to be the movie's article of faith and deus ex machina. The president's controlling chief of staff (Willem Dafoe), a combination of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney, who in one of their funnier exchanges assures Quaid that "I'm there for you," wants to restore the president's plunging poll numbers by positioning him as a guest judge on Grant's show. At this point, the mujahideen -- who, like everyone else in this universe, are addicted to American TV -- catch Golzari's act and, realizing that he has a chance to go all the way, designate him their suicide contestant.
The eerie spectacle of a jihadist prancing through "The Impossible Dream" notwithstanding, American Dreamz should really have been funnier. But it's not boring. Paddling vigorously through some mid-movie doldrums, Weitz unexpectedly brings everything together for a suitably madcap finale involving multiple betrayals and malfunctions, a remote-controlled president, starstruck terrorists and an on-air marriage proposal. It's not exactly The Manchurian Candidate, but the whole world is watching. Golzari's rendition of "My Way" is nearly equaled by a heartfelt plea to "deal with reality" (including the admission that Middle East problems will never be solved). As if to prove the point, Weitz detonates a suicide bomb as a punchline.
To make its point, however, American Dreamz could not possibly be insulting enough. (Compared to the genuinely illiberal Team America, this is a love pat -- despite Trey Parker's cameo as a doomed contestant, the long-haired Rocky Man.) Quaid's president is neither the petulant charmer we know and loathe nor the vain and cunning Bush of David Hare's heroic docudrama Stuff Happens -- although perhaps Weitz did see Hare's play when it was staged in Los Angeles last summer. At any rate, American Dreamz poses the same essential question. "To what degree is this country culpable for its actions?" the dancing mujahid wonders. "Are Americans responsible for America?"
Ultimately, American Dreamz is less social satire than social realism -- the contestants are virtually indistinguishable from those on the real American Idol, and the pols are as comfortingly stupid as we might wish them to be. Bottom line and end of the day, American Dreamz is still flattering. The movie may have been made with the barest modicum of style and taste, but it is never as crass as its presumed audience.