Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Phenomenal Satire Exploding With Relevance: American Dreamz Delivers!

The Good: Excellent acting, FUNNY, Good characters, Universal jibes
The Bad: Pacing near the end, Slightly dated
The Basics: In a terrifically funny parody of our times, American Dreamz takes shots at the United States of America's president, obsession with reality television and overall attitude.

[Note: This review was originally written during the Bush Administration and I decided to keep the original opening because, like the film, captured a very clear sense of time and place. Enjoy! - W.L. Swarts]

American Dreamz, a comedy about politics and reality television written by Paul Weitz and my reaction afterwards was simple, "Why hadn't I heard more about this movie when it was out?!"

American Dreamz follows two parallel storylines as the President of the United States, a Bush-like buffoon named Stanton wins re-election, reads a newspaper and is shocked to discover the world is much bigger than the United States while at the same time, Martin Tweed, executive producer and judge of the wildly popular American Idol-type show American Dreamz hunts for talent to make the new season of the show even more popular than its previous ones. He finds his talent in the form of Sally Kendoo, a young woman who thirsts for stardom and has real talent. Also on the show is Omer Obeidi, an Arab who pretty much flunked out of terrorist school and who is activated for martyrdom only when he becomes a contestant on American Dreamz and the President is announced as a guest judge for the final episode.

What's worst about this movie is so closely tied to what is best about it that it's almost impossible to start my review with the low-point and make it clear I am discussing the film's weakness. American Dreamz is the satire of our time, right now, 2004-2006. This is it. Paul Weitz brilliantly pokes fun at every institution and popular culture/political individual of this time and place in the world. And he does it universally, so it's not just a poke at the American president, the American Idol contestants, the soldiers, the suicide bombers, the television executives, it's ALL of them. And it's brilliant and funny. And it will be forgotten as one of the best movies of the decade or such because in two years, it will be so dated as to be obsolete. Dust-covered copies of this DVD will be pulled off the shelf in sixty years and shown to grandchildren who will shake their heads and wonder why people would think it was funny to have an idiot for a president and that television would be ruled by tweens who rely on the American public for gratification and reinforcement.

In short, there is nothing so universal about American Dreamz and that is its weakness; it is destined to be forgotten as the United States works to regain its respectable status in the world and eliminate the black stains of warmongering and bullying of the past six years.

But right now, this is hilarious and it's what we need as American citizens who cannot stand the things being carried out in our name. This is the chance to laugh about the follies of our times. And it is all about our time. President Stanton is a clear George Bush parody, embodied by the stubborn refusal to read the news, to listen to others and to face reality. His Chief of Staff is a Cheney/Rove parody that plays like the MadTV Frankenstein-esque Cheney for the hour and a half of the movie - and I see that as a good thing. Sally Kendoo is a clear parody of Kelly Clarkson and the choice to parody Clarkson is actually a decent one; Clarkson is clearly the most talented individual to come out of the American Idol scene and as such parodying her is not simply picking on the novelty contestants, which are represented in the movie by Omer and an Israeli contestant.

American Dreamz works because all of the characters are types. Sally Kendoo is the archetypal will poke her eyes out for success, win at all costs, American youth who has talent and is ready to exploit herself and her talent to succeed. Martin Tweed is the embodiment of every negative stereotype of a Simon Cowell who has achieved success in a way that does not stimulate him and who must remain at the top of his game, lest he lose everything he has built. And even the minor characters work because they are simply "types" and parodies. Indeed, the name of Marcia Gay Harden's character is simply "First Lady Stanton."

And Harden's portrayal of First Lady Stanton is enviable and one of the few chinks in the otherwise tight armor of American Dreamz. First Lady Stanton is articulate, even if somewhat cowed, and her interactions with President Stanton make the viewer long for the days of strong First Ladies who would be an asset to the nation. Other than her, all the "types" fit our current circumstances and they work.

They work because the actors playing them are devoted to selling the jokes and the portrayals of our times. Sam Golzari is hilarious dancing to show tunes in a tent at the terrorist training camp. Hugh Grant, looking somewhat older than when previous seen, is morose and charming, flashy and deeply sarcastic and he makes us forget he is Hugh Grant. After the first few minutes on screen, Grant IS Martin Tweed.

Mandy Moore deserves a lot of credit for her role as Sally Kendoo. Moore is smart and turns her emotions on a dime to make a joke for the movie. Some of the best comic timing comes between her, Jennifer Coolidge (her character's mother) and the agent they've hired in figuring out Kendoo's story for the show. Moore whips out some of the funniest lines in succession with a deadpan delivery that is amazing.

Dennis Quaid, who I never would have guessed could do it, does the most amazing parody of George W. Bush throughout the film. He adopts a swaggering, frat-boy type attitude and has moments where he is able to disengage from all reality with a clueless look on his face that masterfully create a character who is a clear interpretation of the person he seeks to embody. Quaid is given some challenging lines to deliver without breaking that mold, most notably during the President's appearance on American Dreamz and he does it admirably. One suspects those lines that Quaid delivers are pure wish fulfillment on the part of writer/director Weitz, who no doubt desperately wishes to hear them spoken by Bush.

The person who steals the show is Willem Dafoe. Dafoe is brilliant as the sinister, manipulative, evil genius puppetmaster Chief of Staff. Dafoe does an extraordinary job creating a Rovian Cheney character who manipulates the President, down to telling him exactly what to say via a transmitter in the President's ear. And throughout, Dafoe laces the performance with subtle strokes from Weitz that are scathing, wherein the Chief of Staff shrinks away from all forms of acknowledgment or responsibility, even literally slinking out of a spotlight. Dafoe is instantly recognizable for the character he is meant to represent and he is utterly hilarious in the role. I would never have guess him for it, but he sells it flawlessly.

Writer and director Paul Weitz deserves a lot of credit for American Dreamz. It's a smart movie and it works on a number of levels. From the parody of the names, it's no coincidence that the lead contestant is named "Kendoo" (i.e. "can do") and the President's name is meant to sound so close to "Stalin," to the most subtle joke near the climax of the movie which I think is one of the funniest (when Liberty is thrown in his car and taken from American Dreamz, the window in front of where he is being protected is rolled down), Weitz creates a movie that is smart and funny and working on multiple levels. He deserves credit for that.

Ultimately, though, the movie ends and we wake up to a new, higher body count and politicians who continue to abrogate responsibility and our laughter turns to discomfort and we envy Weitz's created world, where things change in the significant things and the only things that stay the same are the ways people are exploited on reality television for their own perceived gain.

For other films featuring Hugh Grant, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Did You Hear About The Morgans?
Love Actually
Bridget Jones's Diary


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2006 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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