Like Nick Hornby, whose novel he adapted in About a Boy, Paul Weitz’ work is distinguished by his pure, almost universal affection for his characters. His films are simultaneously heart-warming and intelligent, a rare combination. Alas, in American Dreamz his determination to find something nice to say about each of his creations is his undoing: there are so many of them that he’s left himself no time to say anything else.
American Dreamz begins in the White House on the morning of President Staton’s (Dennis Quaid) reelection. Against the advice of his wife (Marcia Gay Harden) and Chief of Staff (Willem Dafoe), he decides to celebrate by reading the newspaper as a change of pace. It sends him spiraling into depression.
Meanwhile, the television program American Dreamz (modeled after American Idol) is gearing up for its latest season. Ratings-hungry judge and host Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant) decides that sensationalism is the way to go, and commands his assistants: “bring me an Arab and a Jew.”
They find a Hasidic rapper named Sholem Glickstein (Adam Busch) and a showtune-loving Iraqi named Omer (Sam Golzari). Omer is, in fact, a mujahedin reject — after his clumsiness keeps interfering with the shooting of a terrorist training camp video he’s banished to America, ostensibly to wait for contact from a sleeper cell.
Tweed’s assistants also find the ruthlessly ambitious Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore) in Padookie, Ohio. After finding out she’s been selected to appear on the show, she dumps her boyfriend, William Williams (Chris Klein), and hires an agent (Seth Meyers). Overcome with grief, William enlists in the army. He’s shipped to Iraq, but he’s wounded on his first day and returns home. Sensing a PR coup, Sally and the agent take him back.
It’s a sprawling collection of plotlines, each of which could probably support a feature-length film all its own. They’re all brought together at the season finale of American Dreamz: the president is guest judging the episode (it’s to boost his approval rating, which fell after his depression confined him to his room), Omer has been re-recruited by the terrorists to blow him up, Sally Kendoo is the other finalist.
Unfortunately, crafting a satisfying narrative requires more than just bringing everyone together in the same room at the end. American Dreamz is simply a mouthful too big to digest in one film. The different stories bump and jostle one another for space, and in the end each is slighted.
Some of the film’s most provocative elements receive its most cursory treatments. Weitz’ terrorists, for instance, are devotees of American Dreamz. Is this comedic because it’s absolutely absurd to think of terrorists responding to American Idol? What does that say about us, or about them? Or is the idea that there is some universal appeal to American culture, represented by this program? That certainly seems fraught with complications.
At other times, Weitz’ refusal to indict any of his creations disables whatever critique he’s trying to make. American Dreamz clearly suggests a parallel between the way we elect our presidents and the way we choose our American idols. This sounds critical, but then President Staton’s Capra-esque speechifying at the end indicates that he’s really a good guy who simply lost sight of the All-American values that got him this far.
Perhaps this is proof that Staton’s mother was right, that “any idiot” really can become President of the United States. But this seems a far cry from the old American adage that we can grow up to become whatever we want, even the leader of our country. The upbeat tone of the rest of the film would seem to belie a moral so dark.
Too schizophrenic to function as an entertainment and too muddled to bear any intelligible message, American Dreamz is, in the end, simply a mess. It’s a great, big American-sized mess to be sure, but I suspect that that wasn’t the point.Powered by Sidelines