WFTB Score: 6/20
The plot: As a new series of American Dreamz looms, jaded producer Martin Tweed tries to spice up the show with contestants including an Iraqi named Omer – complete with Jewish opposition – and a pretty starlet called Sally, in whom Martin takes an unhealthy interest. Those pulling the strings at the Whitehouse see the show as just the ticket to bring increasingly erratic – or is that self-aware? – President Joe Staton back into the American public’s good books; but the decision to put him on the show puts him directly in the path of Omer and his destiny.
I had few pre-conceptions about American Dreamz before coming to it, since director Paul Weitz’ track history balances the, er, uncomplicated American Pie against a thoughtful treatment of Nick Hornby’s About A Boy, starring Hugh Grant. Here, producer/writer/director Weitz takes half of one film’s title, the lead of the other, and looks at the worlds of politics and ‘reality’ TV from a hopefully funny angle.
English impresario Martin Tweed (Grant) has the world at his feet as creator and star of American Dreamz, the singing show that has captivated America and brought him unspeakable wealth. But as a new season begins, ‘Tweedy’ dreads the thought of bringing together dozens more ‘freaks’ for the viewers’ consumption, until he is fascinated by young, trashy hopeful Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore), a pretty and deceptively ambitious singer with a supportive mother (Jennifer Coolidge) and a drip of a boyfriend in William Williams (Chris Klein).
When Sally is chosen for the show, she promptly dumps William, whose army misadventures make for a great story – which counts for a lot on American Dreamz – no matter how much Sally is unmoved romantically. She has competition, though: Omer (Sam Golzari), a young Iraqi with a thing for show tunes, is accidentally roped into the show, much to the disgust of his flamboyant cousin and show wannabe Iqbal (Tony Yalda).
Omer’s dreams of stardom are compromised by the fact that he has been sent to America to avenge his mother’s death; and when his orders arrive in the shape of some very shifty-looking ‘friends’, he has a terrible choice to make. For recently-re-elected US President Joe Staton (Dennis Quaid) has been instructed to appear on the final of American Dreamz by manipulative Chief of Staff Willem Dafoe in an attempt to show the country he’s not crazy (the pres is hearing voices, but with good reason). Will Omer explode his own career whilst blowing up the President? And will William have the guts to go through with a proposal live on TV – or will Tweedy’s obsession with Sally put a spanner in the works?
It barely needs saying that the targets for Weitz’ satire are TV show American Idol and the fleeting fame it affords to everyone except one Mr Simon Cowell; and secondly, the state of mind of the 43rd President of the United States, Mr George W Bush. Sadly, as satire goes, this is pretty weak beer. Much though I hated him and his stupid hat, Ed Harris’ Christof in The Truman Show was a genuinely satirical swipe at the humble television producer turned auteur/puppet master. By contrast, the impersonations American Dreamz has to offer don’t even go skin deep, content merely to ape the clothing of those it lazily targets.
The jokes are mostly telegraphed and predictable, broader even than those in Drop Dead Gorgeous; but it’s the characters that don’t work, rather than what they say. The Iraqis in particular are insultingly broad caricatures, no better than the representation of Indians in The Guru. When I wrote up Four Lions I wondered what it would have looked like had it got its portrayal of Muslims wrong: it would have looked like this, characters having no credibility or internal life, just beards, funny, shouty accents and a bomb.
The other reason American Dreamz doesn’t work is because Weitz tells two stories that actually have nothing whatsoever to do with each other. The political element is by far the weaker plot line, giving no insight into the politics of the day (Bush is a bit dumb and relies on his advisors, you say? Get away…). It’s also contrived – why would a US President go on a tacky TV show, other than to satisfy a terrorist plot, er, plot? That the TV programme strand is better isn’t to say it’s any good, but at least it feels like an authentically cheap version of American Idol, and Sally’s vicious battle against the hopelessly good-hearted Omer at least provides a bit of tension in a film which almost completely lacks narrative drive.
I wonder what a film that concentrated solely on the TV show would have looked like: we could have got to know other contestants, then sympathise or celebrate as they were whittled down after pouring their hearts out in song (the tunes on offer here are bland at best). Disappointingly, the whole contest is more or less conveyed in a single montage, with even the brash Jewish contestant drifting away without a single political point being made.
The ending is a real fudge, relying on the irresistible lure of consumerism over ideology and letting the president’s story dribble away. It also draws a very confusing moral from its explosive denouement: Tweed deserves his fate because he corrupted an already-corrupt girl? Not that you’d know anything had gone on between Martin and Sally, so reluctant is the film to actually offend American sensibilities – or, one suspects, Cowell’s lawyers. Actually, Grant, while not quite escaping his eyelash-fluttering clichés, does bring a vaguely loathsome self-assuredness to Martin Tweed that makes him one of the actor’s more interesting roles; the mother-daughter pairing of Coolidge and Moore, too, is attractively awful and overcomes the blandishments of Klein and Seth Meyers as Sally’s geeky manager, Chet. Quaid, Defoe, and Marcia Gay Harden as Staton’s patient wife are all perfectly adequate, but the ker-razy idea of Staton threatening to read and think for himself really doesn’t fly.
American Dreamz was never likely to be a huge success, its script spraying witless and scattershot jokes wildly over two lazy, unrelated stories, neither of which have enough substance or bite to last the distance, or (I suspect) find an audience suitably interested in both strands. Weitz would have been better off either fully exploring the ups and downs of the unedifying TV landscape Cowell has given us, complete with more songs, more characters, and possibly more American Pie-type racy humour; or taking a hint from Team America: World Police and going for his targets with unapologetic fury. Though Dreamz is not quite a nightmare, it’s not far off.