American Dreamz (2006): Weitz’s Toothless Satire

Toothless and grinning, American Dreamz is a suitable social satire for the age of Bush.

Paul Weitz’s comedy may have enough ideas for ten Hollywood movies but not one good plot for a biting satire. Too simplistic and broad in its targets, this decidedly unfunny movie is a misfire and Weitz’s weakest film to date.

The film premiered last month at the Bermuda Film Festival and in Austin’s SXSW Film Festival, where it quickly developed a negative-word-of mouth from which it may not recover now that it’s opening nationally. It’s doubtful that American Dreamz would be seen by either right-wing or left-wing viewers.

Though it sounds topical, American Dreamz is at least two or three years behind the zeitgeist. In 2006, it takes little originality to satirize a cheesy talent TV show like American Idol, and little daring to spoof an incompetent president like Bush. Even the show’s fanatic admirers dont take American Idol too seriously; they are the best experts at spoofing it. Some contestants, like Kelly Clarkston, have real talent, but others, like Clay and Justin are just names, quickly vanished from our memory.

You can’t fault the actors for the film’s overall failure since they have done good work for Weitz before. Hugh Grant was excellent in About a Boy, and Dennis Quaid was more than adequate in In Good Company. American Dreamz reunites Weitz with both Grant and Quaid, two talented but very different actors that the movie could have benefited from their divergent styles.

In this wannabe satire, Grant plays Englishman Martin Tweed, the host of a top-ranking TV show, American Dreamz, in which the public members, desperately seeking fame, display their talentsbig and small ones. Although last season was successful, Tweed is tired of having the same types of characters on the show, so he employs his assistants to find more eccentric people for the new season.

One such hopeful contender is Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), a young Mid-Western girl with little talent but mega ambitions; the only reality Sally knows is from TV Reality shows. The other contenders are an Orthodox cantor turned rapper, and a sweet Arab named Omer (Sam Golzari), who “just happens” to have been trained as a terrorist.

Meanwhile, President Staton (Quaid), on the verge of a nervous breakdown, has just won a reelection, but despite the victory, he’s depressed and bedridden. There’s nothing the first lady (Marcia Gay Harden, as a nicer and kinder Laura Bush) or his hectoring Chief of Staff (Willem Dafoe lampooning Dick Chaney and Karl Rove) can do to lift his morale. Suddenly wanting to learn more about the real world, Staton locks himself in his bedroom and begins to read ferociously newspapers, instead of the daily briefs of his Chief of Staff.

The news media speculate about Staton’s condition, and, not surprisingly, his approval ratings slip down. After some discussion, to show the public that he’s stills a functional leader, the President decides to make an appearance as a guest judge on American Dreamz.
When news spread about the President’s intent, Omer is sent into action by a sleeper cell and ordered to martyr himself for the cause. Omer, who may be from Afghanistan (the movie shies away from specifying the country) stays with his upscale Arab-American relatives, including Nazneen (Shohreh Aghdashloo). Omer soon discovers that Nazneen’s gay teen son Iqbal (Tony Yalda) shares a love for Broadway Musicals and wants to be on Tweed’s show.

Before long, it becomes clear that the movie’s satirical targets are going to be broad and easy. In American Dreamz, they are like a shopping list of 9/11 issues and pop-culture problems: Incompetent Presidency, the Iraq War, TV shows like American Idol, greedy and disingenuous hosts, short attention span, obsession with success, addiction to TV and fake dreams, and so on.

Audiences may be confused by the mixed signals sent by the movie, which is part satire, part cautionary tale, part spoof. Smug, the film comes across as superior to its characters, the TV audiences who watch shows like American Idol, and, by extension, all consumers of pop culture–the major source of our ills, according to Weitz.

As played by Quaid, Staton is a solitary and bewildered President, a buffoon cut adrift from the American people. His hectoring chief of staff feeds him lines for public speeches through an earpiece; in one of the movie’s genuine comic moments, the Presidents earpiece pops out to some detrimental effects.

As the smirking British host, Grant gives an unappealing performance. His Martin Tweed is even more monstrous than Faye Dunaway’s exec in Network. Obsessed with ratings, nothing gets in the way of his show, which must top the Nielsen charts week after week.

Though playing stereotypical roles, the Arab actors give the most endearing performances. Best of all is Sam Golzari, who conveys vividly the insecurities of an eternally amateur contestant.

Of course, the film’s critique of American culture as one drained of real creativity and fixated with surfaces could be applied to American Dreamz itself. Every element, from character traits to plot details, is overblown, and the whole movie is marked by cartoonish tone and comic ineptitude.

Effective satire doesn’t have to be fair to be funny, but it needs to be personally motivated in some way, whether by resentment or aggrieved conscience. However, given the meager attention he pays Tweeds TV show and the visual way in which it’s portrayed, it’s fair to speculate that Weitz is not interested in TV and doesn’t like it much.

The A-level talent behind the cameras, including cinematographer Robert Elswit, composer Stephen Trask, and production designer William Arnold must have been misguided, too, for American Dreams is one of the least attractive productions to be seen this year. Just watch the orange glow over Mandy Moore’s face, and the grainy way in which the naturally handsome Grant is shot.

Using comic strategies to make social commentary is a sound choice, but as writer and director, Weitz can’t find the right flow, the proper rhythm for the material, and most of the comic moments fall flat. As a filmmaker, he doesn’t yet possess the skills necessary to pull off a full-scale satire–without zest, energy, and enthusiasm, a send-up is bound to be dispiriting and humorless.

There’s some color and variety in American Dreamz, though not much by way of teeth or bite. Satire, even at its most merciless, is empowered by the comic rush of discovery, by a sense that the satirist is finding new wrinkles in a subject, but Weitz shows mostly old wrinkles.