Saturday, April 22, 2006

Review - American Dreamz

American Dreamz takes place in an America which is at war with Iraq, an America in which the president - a buffoonish, God-fearing Texan - is little more than a puppet for his shadowy advisers. It’s a country in which more people vote for the latest TV pop star than vote in the presidential elections, with the talent show in question being presided over by an arrogant Brit with a nice line in venomous insults.

Clearly, only the names have been changed to protect the blushes of those involved. American Dreamz is the brainchild of Paul Weitz, who burst onto the scene in 1999 when he and his brother produced American Pie, and who seems to have spent the subsequent seven years trying to distance himself from that hit, with his more mature and contemplative comedies About a Boy and In Good Company. With American Dreamz Weitz has decided that his likeable, lightly comic style is ready to take on some considerably bigger targets, but he misses the mark by some margin.

The president here is Joe Staton (Dennis Quaid, channelling Dubya), and the movie opens on the morning after his re-election for a second term in office. On a whim, Staton asks for the newspapers, and his sudden urge to read about world events rather than having a diluted version fed to him scares the hell out of his Cheney/Rove-alike chief of staff (Willem Dafoe). For weeks the president becomes a recluse, cancelling all public appearances while he delves into various papers and books, and press speculation hints at some sort of breakdown. The White House staff need to get their man back in the public eye, and what better way to reach the widest possible demographic than a guest spot on TV’s highest-rated show?

The host of American Dreamz is Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant), an utterly corrupt, self-loathing character who seems to lack any human characteristics whatsoever. He is obsessed with the show’s ratings, in the opening scene his girlfriend announces that she’s leaving him but he seems far more interested with the latest figures which are being faxed through. He treats his employees like dirt and seemingly hates everyone he comes across equally. All in all, not a very nice man, and the film’s set-up - the world’s most powerful man coming together with the most powerful man on television - has potential, but Weitz still has a couple more stories that he’s determined to tell.

Despite the programme’s success, Tweed is tired of the endless conveyor belt of identikit contestants and he instructs his researchers to spice things up a bit by selecting an Arab. The Arab they choose is Omer (Sam Golzari), an would-be terrorist from Iraq who proved so incompetent that the powers-that-be sent him to the States to be a sleeper cell which they never intended to activate. However, that all changes when he gets picked for the show and his superiors give him the task of reaching the final, which the president will attend, and blowing the Commander in Chief to smithereens live on air.

Finally, there’s Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore). Sally is a young wannabe star from Ohio who is determined to do whatever it takes to win. She exudes sweetness and innocence but an iron will and steely Machiavellian streak rages underneath. She’s even willing to use her dumb but lovable ex-boyfriend William (Chris Klein) to manipulate the viewers in her favour. The stories of these four principal characters slowly converge as the current season of American Dreamz heads towards an explosive finale.

With four distinct story strands to deal with Weitz has difficulty establishing a consistent rhythm and tone, and the first half of American Dreamz feels particularly diffuse. Weitz moves clumsily between the four characters, dragging his feet as he does so, and matters are exacerbated by the fact that genuine laughs are so thin on the ground. The jokes feel tired and predictable, and often disappointingly lowbrow given the film’s aspirations to be a sophisticated satire. Ultimately, the film cannot overcome its most obvious obstacle: how do you lampoon things like reality TV and the Bush administration when they have so clearly lapsed into self-parody long ago? There’s sharper political satire in a brief Daily Show segment than can be found in this film’s 107 minutes, and I’ll bet you’ll find more drama and emotion in a single episode of American Idol than Weitz’s version can muster.

There are amusing moments scattered messily throughout the film, but they tend to be provided by the cast who are the best aspect of the film. Weitz’s strong ensembles have occasionally smoothed over his films’ deficiencies in the past and, while they cannot fully salvage American Dreamz, they at least make things slightly more appealing. Hugh Grant now seems to have left behind the charming, foppish character which made his name, and his performances are all the better for it. His Martin Tweed is a something of a reprisal of his self-absorbed characters from About a Boy and Bridget Jones’ Diary, but given a much coarser edge, and he clearly relishes any opportunity to play the bastard. The other leading man, Dennis Quaid, is slightly less successful. His attempt to reproduce Bush is half-hearted and Staton is portrayed as such a clueless dope it prevents Quaid from investing his character with any weight, resorting instead to a series of befuddled looks which quickly grow stale.

The supporting cast offer a variety of fine moments between them, with Mandy Moore giving an excellent turn as Sally and Sam Golzari proving likeable and sympathetic as Omer. Willem Dafoe, displaying a bloated belly and a bald head, is hilarious as he proves once again what an adept and underused comic actor he can be, Chris Klein is on the kind of strong deadpan form we haven’t seen since Election, while Tony Yalda delivers a scene-stealing turn as Omer’s flamboyantly gay cousin.

After a particularly turgid opening half, American Dreamz improves significantly in its latter stages, as the disparate characters all come together for the show’s grand finale. Weitz even manages to create a decent amount of tension for once as the competition reaches its climax, but he still can’t resist his tendency to soften things at the finish. The soppy ending sees Omer’s vision of fame cause him to think twice about his actions, and the president learns to tell the truth about the issues facing the country. It’s all wrapped up in a disappointingly neat way and whatever toothless satire the film had possessed has long since disappeared.

Paul Weitz has bitten off more than he can chew with American Dreamz. He sets his film up as a satire on politics, television, and pretty much every other aspect of American culture - but his targets are too obvious and his film lacks bite. This kind of film is clearly not Weitz’s forte and one wonders what a savvier, more cynical filmmaker could have made of the same material. Unfortunately, we’ll never know. American Dreamz must be filed away in the bulging drawer marked ‘missed opportunity’; and while a few fine performances prevent it from being a complete washout, it’s very far from the stuff dreamz are made of.