Thursday, April 20, 2006

American Dreamz

Title: American Dreamz (2006)
Dir: Paul Weitz
Tagline: Imagine a country where the President never reads the newspaper, where the government goes to war for all the wrong reasons, and more people vote for a pop idol than their next President.
Rating: *** out of 5 stars

For the Diamondback...

Paul Weitz’s American Dreamz features Arab terrorists, a dimwitted president, and Iraq war veterans, but don’t simply dismiss it as another preachy political film. This ballsy new comedy simultaneously satirizes American pop culture, our ongoing conflict with the Middle East, and all the stereotypes involved therein.

Fresh on the heels of Thank You For Smoking, another bold political satire, Dreamz similarly throws political correctness out the window and aims for absurdity. Although occasionally muddled, the film achieves some genuine laughs, largely thanks to its quirky cast of characters.

Leading the stellar cast is Hugh Grant, who plays against type as cocky, fowl-mouthed television star, Martin Tweed. Bearing a not-so-subtle resemblance to American Idol’s Simon Cowell, Tweed hosts “American Dreamz”, an immensely popular reality show where young hopefuls compete to become America’s next pop music sensation.

Among the contestants is southern sweetheart, Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore, Saved!), who pursues her dreams of fame with ruthless ambition. Her strongest competition comes from a showtune-loving Iraqi named Omer (newcomer Sam Golzari), who finds himself involved with terrorists bent on a televised attack.

The second subplot of Dreamz involves President Staton, portrayed by Dennis Quaid (In Good Company). The god-fearing, grammatically-challenged commander-in-chief is an obvious parody of President Bush. Tired of his advisors spoon-feeding him lines, Staton grows weary of his job and hides in his bedroom reading newspapers. Desperate for good PR, the Chief of Staff (Willem Dafoe, Spider-Man) volunteers the president to guest-judge on “American Dreamz”.

With the final “Dreamz” competition comes a shocking, but hilarious ending. If your jaw isn’t on the floor, you will surely be laughing at the absurdity of it all.

Writer/director Weitz, who has tackled both heart-warming (About A Boy) and raunchy (American Pie), delivers a bold piece of satire with Dreamz. Narrow-minded viewers are bound to mistake his witty characters for offensive stereotypes. Despite what you may hear, the film does not portray all Arabs as terrorists, but in fact mocks such stereotypes with their own absurdity. When we see black-clad soldiers crossing monkey bars in the desert with a caption that simply reads, “Terrorist Training Camp”, it should already be obvious that this is satire.

The movie also spoofs ratings-moguls like “American Idol” and the contestants they exploit. Fans of the show should chuckle at the many inside jokes, including the British host’s snide remarks (“You make me want to projectile vomit”) and wannabes suspiciously resembling Clay Aiken, Fantasia Barrino, and Bo Bice.

The melding of pop culture and politics is not always successful. While I give the writer/director credit for having the cajones to make a comedy involving terrorism, the film is occasionally cluttered and its message made unclear. Furthermore, Weitz attempts to inject heart into all the cynicism, but it barely shines through. Eventually you realize the movie is about staying true to yourself, but this is not apparent until the final 1/3 of the film.

Sloppy as the movie may sometimes feel, it makes it up with witty dialogue and an impressive cast of characters. Grant, who abandons the nice guy roles he is famous for, steals the show as Tweed. Moore, a former teen singer, turns a great performance and proves herself superior to the pop princesses that her character is spoofing. Meanwhile, Quaid provides an amusing impression of Bush, but I much preferred watching Dafoe ham it up as the Chief of Staff.

Golzari is lovable and believable as the young Iraqi with conflicts of loyalty. This is truly his story, and rightfully so. Still, the film’s supporting characters supply most of the laughs, including Omer’s flamboyant cousin Iqbal (Tony Yalda) and a sleazy Hollywood agent played by Seth Meyers of “Saturday Night Live.”

Rounding out the supporting cast are Chris Klein (American Pie) as Sally’s na├»ve high-school sweetheart, and Marcia Gay Harden (Mona Lisa Smile) as a Laura Bush clone, who is apparently overcoming an addiction to happy pills. Unfortunately, this side story is abandoned, and therefore should have been cut entirely.

There are a few neglected storylines such as that, and a few moments of extraneous dialogue that should have been dropped. Such sloppiness drags the film down, but Dreamz still provides a fun time at the movies. The satire is very relevant, and might make you feel uncomfortable at times, but it does not depress nor preach to its audience. Instead, it boldly reminds us that the world’s problems are no reason to stop laughing.