Interesting premise failed by poor realization
By Lady Liberty
** out of ****
Okay, okay, I confess: I'm an American Idol fan. Worse, I'm a fan who votes. So now you know my deepest secret — one that's shared, judging by the ratings, by about a bazillion other Americans. American Idol is such a ratings juggernaut that it's even made superstars out of its judges, including one notoriously curmudgeonly Simon Cowell. With that level of notoriety, it actually makes a certain amount of sense that someone would try to make a movie out of the concept. What makes no sense at all is that such a frivolous pop culture topic should get mixed up with the War in Iraq, the unpopularity of a second term president, and suicide bombers. Idol fan or not, I had to see this potential trainwreck for myself.
Martin Tweed (Hugh Grant) is the powerhouse producer behind the popular American Dreamz television show. He's not a particularly nice man. He's mean to his girlfriend, his co-workers, and performers on his show. But people apparently love to hate him as his ratings are through the roof. Tweedy (as he likes to be called) knows he's not a nice guy, but he's also rich and famous which counts for something!
After several very successful seasons of the national singing competition, Tweedy is just a little bit bored with it all. He wants contestants that make him laugh, that make him sick, or that turn him on. His producers scour the country for singers who have talent, or at least an interesting back story to fulfill Tweedy's demands. And they find several they think will fill the bill including Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore) who lives in a small town in Ohio.
Once Sally knows she's been chosen to compete, her stage-struck mother Martha (Jennifer Coolidge) wastes no time finding her a shrewdly manipulative agent (Chet Krogl, played by Seth Meyers). But while Sally and Martha prepare to move onward and upward, Sally's wholesome boyfriend William Williams (Chris Klein) is about to be left behind by the girl he's loved since high school. Sally doesn't even bother to look in the rear view mirror as she makes it clear she'll do anything and step on anyone to win American Dreamz. Williams' response? In a fit of desperation, he joins the Army and is promptly dispatched to Iraq.
Meanwhile, American Dreamz producers are working on yet another of Tweedy's esoteric requests for the show. He wants a Jew, he says, and an Arab. Producers go to the home of Iqbal Riza (Tony Yalda) to talk to the young Arab-American man who sent them a video audition of himself on his own private stage. Instead, they meet his cousin, Omer (Sam Golzari) who is visiting from Iraq, and offer the show-tune loving young man a spot on the program.
Omer's good fortune provides an unexpected bonus to some Middle Eastern terrorists with whom he's all too well acquainted. It seems that the unpopular President of the United States (Joseph Statin, played by Dennis Quaid) will be appearing on American Dreamz as a judge to bolster public opinion of him and his administration. The President's Chief of Staff (Willem Dafoe) and his wife (Marcia Gay Harden) convince him an appearance is a good idea, and he resignedly allows himself to be talked into it. Omer, meanwhile, is tapped by the terrorists to take advantage of the situation.
This all sounds more confusing than it really is. Paul Weitz (who wrote the very successful Antz and About A Boy) has penned a script that somehow takes these polar opposite topics and combines them into a surprisingly seamless and amusing whole. Weitz also helms the film as its director (previous credits include the original American Pie and About A Boy) which probably also helps.
Hugh Grant plays much the same kind of character he usually does — a disarmingly charming cad. On the plus side, the reason he gets so many of those parts is because he's good at them. Mandy Moore, who looks like the very pretty girl next door, is quite effective at playing a girl who ought to be as sweet as she looks, but isn't. Dennis Quaid is probably a little too confused for believability, but then much of the rest of his role is largely relegated to a near slapstick level as well. This is political commentary, not political strategy! Willem Dafoe as the ultra-controlling Chief of Staff with an uncanny resemblence to Dick Cheney, however, is a hoot.
The supporting cast is just fine, with one lament and one real standout. The lament? Jennifer Coolidge is as staid as I've ever seen her, and she's so good when she's not! The standout is Tony Yalda. His portrayal of the wannabe star Iqbal is completely over the top — and more than a little funny. The rest of the theater audience at the showing I attended clearly agreed.
American Dreamz is better than it sounds on paper, but I don't think it's as good as it could have been. I was amused, but I only laughed a couple of times; I was entertained, but left feeling unfulfilled as the closing credits rolled. In short, if you don't have anything else to do, American Dreamz will while away a couple of hours. Unfortunately, that's really all it will do.
POLITICAL NOTES: Let's see: A second term president who is prosecuting a war in Iraq and whose approval ratings are abysmally low. Does that sound like anybody you know? President Joseph Statin is, of course, a caricature and as such is exaggerated in the extreme. He doesn't read the papers, for example, and seems largely ignorant of current international affairs. I don't for a minute believe that's true of our real president (despite the rumors to the contrary). Statin is also, however, manipulated handily by his Chief of Staff — who you'll recall looks bizarrely like Vice President Dick Cheney. And while I'm not so sure Mr. Cheney serves quite such a powerful role in the real world, I do confess to having long suspected that somebody else is running quite a bit more of the show than American voters know.
Certainly, there's an overt political commentary here, but it's cartoonish enough that audiences (at least not ones with an IQ above the double digits) aren't going to believe it outright even as they most assuredly will "get it." Besides, it's tough not to see the correlation between a group of singers who are all to often winners based on looks and emotional appeals over talent, and politicians who get votes less on patriotism or skill than on money, fame, and favors.
FAMILY SUITABILITY: American Dreamz is rated PG 13 for "brief strong language and some sexual moments." I think that rating is probably just about right. In truth, kids will probably get more of a kick out of this movie than will their parents. I'd say American Dreamz is fine for any child of age 12 or so and up. But if you're the parent who "gets" to go with them, the good news is that you'll at least be somewhat entertained while you wait.
Lady Liberty, a senior writer for ESR, is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at firstname.lastname@example.org.